What’s really wrong with Wal-Mart

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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

15 thoughts on “What’s really wrong with Wal-Mart”

  1. Weak. Really weak.
    In most of the country, people drive to shop regardless of the size of the stores. The idea of walking to get groceries (or in the case of some of the other big box stores, lumber) is ridiculous when in most suburbs, small towns, rural areas and parts of some cities. As long as they've got a car, people drive to shop. If they don't have a car, then the bus to Wal-Mart may be an advantage over three buses (one to the hardware store to get a key made, another to the grocery store to get bread, and a third to the clothing store to buy underwear).
    Sure, the big box stores take away the shopping reasons to go downtown in many communities and causing them to decline — at least those too stupid to adapt. The smart towns are encouraging theatres and other arts opportunities, plus restaurants and coffee shops, specialty stores immune to the big box, pedestrian streets and tourism, and drawing people to socialize and spend time together when they're not buying groceries.
    The notion that you have to get your neighborly human contact when buying shampoo in order for it to have meaning is a little bizarre.
    Sure, the big box trend may be a little annoying to those rare rich individuals who live in the city and actually could afford to live within walking distance of all their stores, but I have very little sympathy for them. Maybe they could learn something by having to "socialize" with the great unwashed masses saving money at Wal-Mart.

  2. "The notion that you have to get your neighborly human contact while ____ …is a little bizarre."
    This jibe is a good illustration of the each-to-all error; if no-one of a set of things is very important on its own, then the whole set must be unimportant as well. Indeed, any single activity could be put in the space above, but as we put them in one-by-one (e.g., arts/theatres? Netflix, iTunes, and the web; Restaurants? takeout, or invite people you know you get along with to dinner at home; Specialty stores? more selection and much quicker to shop on line…) we wind up in a very bad situation.

  3. Michael O'hare, I couldn't agree more. Recently a new neighbor–he hasn't even moved in yet–had to go around and meet all of the old neighbors in order to get our permission to have a curb cut put in for his car. My spouse observed that the interesting side effect of our towns otherwise annoying laws about variances and zoning is that at least once you have to meet all your neighbors and interact with them. Its actually a great way to start in a new neighborhood, but without this compelling state action it wouldn't have happened.
    We actually live in an area where you can walk to work, walk to shop, and walk to school. And yes, that walking, and the smaller stores, means that we personally know the waitresses, workers, shop owners, etc… in our area, as well as our neighbors.
    I really enjoy the drive by class warfare of pete guither who posts, baselessly and incoherently, that it is only "rare, rich indivudals who live in the city and actually could afford to live within walking distance of all their stores." What planet is pete guither living on? Does the phrase "urban poor" mean anything to him? Historically the cities have been where poor and rich actually mingle, and to a great extent use the same facilities and the same public spaces. Its not at wal-mart or target that we meet with the "great unwashed masses" it is on street corners and convenience stores in the city.
    And, of course, walmart etc… destroyed ongoing small town culture where, to be sure, those sturdy midwestern farmers drove to the towns and then–walked–to a small set of locally owned and operated stores. The death of those small towns has as much to do with the death of opportunity for young people and the death of small farms as it does with walmart's cheap prices, but its nothing to be celebrated and what was lost isn't replaced with cheap stuff from china.

  4. Wholeheartedly agree, but then I live in Tokyo, having moved here in 1978. I haven't owned or driven a car in all this time. Our kids walk, bicycle, or use the trains. I walk to shops in four different directions to do daily shopping. But now even Tokyo and the surrounding areas have big-box stores, and increasingly people are driving to them. Their life-style is diverging from that of the walkers/train-riders. Obesity is starting to creep in. Unpleasantness is on the rise.
    Even though America is geographically much different from Japan, I don't believe it was necessary for Americans to adopt the suburban-mall centered, car-centered life style. It didn't start out that way. There used to be trains, and local shops, and no strip malls. I still remember those days, growing up in the midwest.

  5. Interesting. But it doesn't have to be cars or big box stores even. I think it is simply technology in support of what can only be called America's raging cult of individuality. Examples abound. How much time is spent talking to the neighbors across the hedge rather than watching television or surfing the web – both solo activities. I went out recently to help a neighbor dig a little trough in front of his house to help rainwater go elsewhere and he wondered what I was doing. I was being friendly in a decidedly non-reciprocal altruistic way. In our individualistic pay for what you get, money mediated society, he didn't get it… it was distantly foreign to him.
    The main story though is just up the street at our neighborhood library. Until recently it was a place to go and get books, maybe browse around a bit in the biography section or sit by the fire in the wintertime. There was always Lloyd and Kevin there to be friendly with at checkout time. Lloyd is our resident right wing librarian – no doubt a rare bird. But friendly and open with it. Now they've switched to self checkout and the place seems to have died. Lloyd and Kevin are still there, but not as readily available for conversation. While I imagine the library has saved a penny or two on the automation, they have decidedly emptied the building of overt freindliness. Now one of the sources I used to teach my kids about that kind of public friendliness and service is gone. Sometimes I think the problem… and I guess economists wrestle with it… is assigning dollar value to things not usually assciated with dollars – like check-out friendliness. We have become so tied to assigning dollar value to everything that if a service or commodity doesn't fit that valuation mode, we ignore it – pretend it doesn't exist or at least have any value. Before even Vietnam, this is Robert McNamara's greatest sin… the overweighting of numerical analysis. Him and his whiz-kids. Or whatever that WWII group of his was called.

  6. Apart from low price, there's one other very important advantage that the big boxes offer -> variety. The difference between a 2000 square-foot store and a 20,000 square-foot store, in terms of the number of different items of a given general type they can stock, is enormous. There is of course, a case to be made for reducing the number of SKU's of, say, cereal from 100 to 10 – but it must be admitted that there is a benefit to having all those different sizes and types available. And for more technical items in a hardware store- say different fasteners or different types of lumber or different glues etc etc – the benefit of having it all in one place is very significant in terms of time saved (and gasoline and traffic!) just looking for stuff. Furthermore, even if they have the space, small stores cannot stock a lot of slow movers for purely financial reasons.
    So – believe it or not – big boxes can lead to less homogenization because their market base is broad enough to warrant stocking slower-moving limited-interest merchandise – and they've got the space to do it.

  7. Skip is right in theory, but reality falls far short, in my experience, and it's actually one of my pet peeves. I posted more extensive reflections on this two items above.

  8. Three local cases of "Walmartization" spring to mind and in each case, the local town leadership had failed to "grow" their town and a sort of corrupted leadership was co-opted by Walmart to provide variances and subsidized roadway improvements to allow the construction of a Walmart. Where counties are weak and poor Walmart works through the county, if the county is prosperous and strong, Walmart will focus on a town or suburban agglomeration.
    I don't know of any case where people who could keep Walmart out failed to do so. In two more local cases here the people were well enough organized to stop Walmart.
    The fact remains, Walmart tries to get in where they see weak or failing local leadership, and those shortcomings in local leadership are all too common in rural America.

  9. Normally, I don't shop at Wal-Mart. There are enough other options in my area that I'm not stuck going there. I worry about people who don't have that choice or who believe Wal-Mart will give them the best deal, however.
    I have no doubt that Wal-Mart charges less for a lot of goods than is charged in comparable local stores; however, I have on several occasions, specifically gone to Wal-Mart for an item that was fairly common, hoping to save a little by buying it there. In every, single case, the price at Wal-Mart was MORE than the price at my other regularly shopped store (such as the grocery store). (The latest was a common analgesic cream that Wal-Mart sold for $11.99 but my grocery stores sells for $9.99. That's a big difference.)
    My experience is, of course, limited, but I am impressed by the fact that Wal-Mart has always had a higher price on the item I was seeking. It makes me wonder what percentage of the common items at Wal-Mart are actually priced lower than they can be purchased at other local stores.

  10. It's interesting to look at the dynamics:
    – US went to shopping malls first (well, there are urban equivalents in Mittleuropean cities, from the 19th century, but the US built the first suburban ones)
    The US was also the first country where cars for personal use were widely available.
    The US also mostly has a very harsh climate: it's cold in winter, and it's hot and humid in summer (even where not cold in winter).
    The US also had, from the early 1960s, a very serious crime and public order problem. The downtown of most American cities was a lousy place in the 70s & 80s (cause but also effect of the decline of high street shopping?)
    Witold Rbyczsnski (?sp?) has pointed out that shopping malls are the new high street. If you want to watch promenading, teenage dating, oldster park sitting etc., go to the Mall.
    See also the brilliant book by Paco Underhill 'The Call of the Mall'.
    – the Big Box is round 2. As the rest of the world (notably the UK) 'gets' the mall, the US moves on to the Big Box.
    The goal of the Big Box is like the old Department Store– cover everything anyone is likely to want, at an unbeatable average price. (see UK grocery superstores). In particular, nail the 'Known Value Item' the 150 or so items that Ms. Shopper (over 70% of retail decisions are made by women) *knows* the price.
    Since shopping is either 1). entertainment (see luxury malls) or 2). necessity, Ms. Shopper is going, on 2, to focus on value-for-money and a convenient experience (drive there in a car).
    Remember Ms. Shopper has way more time constraints than Mr. Shopper on indeed anyone else. She has a job (most American women work) and she has childcare and housework responsibilities (far more so than Mr. Shopper, even in enlightened households).
    And so the Big Box is killing the shopping mall *except* for the latter's function as a social/ entertainment complex particularly for teenagers. I think I read no new mall has been built in the US in 10 years?
    – we now get to round 3 of the evolution. Also invented by Americans (what is it with you guys? ;-).
    Amazon. And all the other home delivery companies. Greater selection– 'The Long Tail'. Instantaneous price comparison.
    (I find Borders here in London a horrendous experience– noise, loud teenagers, staff talking loudly, inappropriate music. Why browse for books at Borders, when I can do it at Amazon? Don't even talk to me about *PC World* (PCs and equipment)– useless staff, never what you want, uncompetitive prices. My favourite experience was trying to check out– they had 3 security guards, and one till open, which was taking 'credit cards only, as we don't have any change').
    Now in Europe, home delivery of groceries is going down a blast. Perhaps due to higher population densities, and more women not working/ being at home.
    Not sure if this is working in the US. But again and again I hear my 'upper middle class, time poor, relatively high income' early adopter friends tell me they can't remember the last time they went to a shop– they do it all online.
    Can the middle classes be far behind?

  11. Follow on from that.
    A US where retail sales are less than half, say, per square foot, that they are now.
    Because delivery companies do the rest.
    What do retail shops *do*.
    One model: Selfridges in London (Bloomingdales in NYC, or La Galleria in Houston?). Shopping as entertainment– several different (high quality) food outlets, appearances by fashion designers and models, special events, etc.
    Another model: the UK High Street. Vertical drinking (the trade term) establishments, concentrated cheek by jowl. Heavy and concentrated use (abuse) of alcohol by middle class people (young)– might be a specifically UK thing (drunk driving less of a problem, things are close enough you can take a cab home– wouldn't work in LA).
    It feels like a world where Macy's et al are in trouble. You can't be middle– you either have to be shopping-as-entertainment *or* you have to be cheap, very cheap.

  12. I think that the "de-neighborhoodization" effect of big-box stores is bad, in many ways; so far, I'm with Michael.
    BUT I think the "de-neighborhoodization" effect of consolidated schools, and of the Supreme Court decisions that schools are government, not community, enterprises, dwarfs the effect of Wal-Mart.

  13. Michael
    Retail becomes entertainment.
    So the cute high street of delis and boutiques lives on in Santa Fe and Vermont.
    Or its urban equivalent: Selfridges, Saks,Bloomingdales.
    But retail as necessity/ functionality, gets (partly) displaced by home delivery.
    Remember Paco Underhill: 70% (+) of retail decisions are made by the most time poor person in society– women aged 25-60.
    My wife swears by home grocery delivery. Now in the US it might not work as well (distances too far/ densities too low).
    Retail survives as a form of entertainment. Or as dirt cheap (interestingly WalMart failed in Germany- -Aldi and Netto have mastered selling groceries *even cheaper* with *even fewer frills*.)
    Having been to China, I would say WalMart has its work cut out for it, as the competitors are already doing a WalMart.

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