I have to weigh in to the Wal-Mart discussion, because if we only talk about the retail and labor economics of this institution, we are missing something that may be even more important. I’m thinking about the degradation of everyday life Wal-Mart, and all big-box stores and malls, enforce as an inseparable condition of their ability to provide a lot of stuff at a low cash-register price. I use that awkward phrase to emphasize that things we pay less money for may still be expensive in other ways: getting stuff at places like Wal-Mart is a transaction in which we sell our humanity for money. The reasons are a little complicated, and have more to do with automobiles than employment practices; bear with me.
Big-box stores draw from a wide area because their efficiencies of distribution are all about having a lot of customers and a big inventory in one place. This means the customers have to drive: it’s too far to walk (it’s a long walk from the far side of the parking lot, never mind from the nearest residence) and we have to buy a lot on each trip – too much to carry on public transit if there is any, or even to wheel home in the two-wheeled baskets we used to call shopping carts – to make the travel time worth while. No-one drives all the way to Wal-Mart for a loaf of bread and a quart of milk.
Driving is important for many reasons, including its environmental damage, but I think it’s most pernicious because you cannot meet anyone driving your car; indeed, any consequential interaction between drivers is a Bad Thing leading to an exchange of license numbers and insurance information on the shoulder. Needing a car to shop as well as to get to work usually adds another car to the family fleet, and driving to shop further undermines any prospect of affordable mass transit.
You encounter people at the store and in the parking lot but almost never anyone you know because your neighbors are diluted by the enormous customer numbers. The most common words spoken in these environments are “excuse me”. And big stores are managed to aggressively suppress the sort of surprising or random event that public streets accommodate, from homeless people reminding us of uncomfortable realities to a musician with his hat on the pavement to people just out walking their dogs or teaching their kids to ride a bike. The experiential standard of a store or a mall management is that nothing will happen that management didn’t intend and program, and that no customer’s behavior will affect any other customer. Shopping by the big-box formula, I believe, is fundamentally inhumane experience. I use the term to denote especially the idea that humanity is in large part a matter of having consequential interactions, including interactions you have not planned and don’t completely control, with other people.
To the extent that retail is concentrated in these low-price, superficially efficient, institutions, it is drained from downtowns large and small, and we spend less time out and about on our feet meeting and interacting with people who aren’t like us, and more and more in a bubble of isolation that begins when we drive out of the garage rather then stepping out a door onto a sidewalk, and persists through the store and back home again. Suburban big-box stores are socially homogeneous because residential development (think tract developments of identical houses targeted at a specific market slice) is like that. The less you have to do with people who aren’t like you, the more afraid of them you will be, so the whole system is linked into a vicious, and I mean vicious, circle of social fragmentation and suspicion.
As just one example of the linkage, consider the implications for your street and your kids of needing two or three cars. (The typical new house in a lot of the country now has a three-car garage that forms most of its street facade.) All the storage and street these cars need push houses farther and farther apart, so a typical suburban house has only about ten other families within walking distance. Such a street is especially bad for children, as it condemns them to a narrow, cramped set of experiences through their whole childhood. Kids in suburbs are necessarily chauffered to any activity; anyway shopping and work trips are all in the car, so the street is empty and walking past endless garage doors is not most people’s idea of a pleasant outing. The kids can’t possibly collect enough bodies to play ball on their own in this environment even if there’s an open space within walking distance. Instead they play ball in leagues organized and controlled by parents and, inevitably, for parents resentful of being drafted to manage so much of their children’s lives; it’s no wonder we’re having an epidemic of bad parent behavior at soccer and little league games, and another of bad teenage behavior when the kids are old enough to drive and have to control their own time and social lives with no practice in doing so.
I emphasize the extent and complexity of this web of causes: Wal-Mart (and Costco, and Home Depot) isn’t “the cause” of American anomie and deracination. But big-box retailing, for all the money economies it creates, is one strong thread holding this web together against efforts to reclaim a more humane quality of life. In most places Americans live, you can’t shop on your feet locally even if you want to and are willing to spend more money for the experience: your merchants are already gone and your downtown is a failing neighborhood of porn video rentals, vacancies, and liquor stores.