The great Walmart debate

Let’s start with a confession. I am not unequivocally anti-Walmart.

I expect this comes as a surprise to some of my friends. My politics are pretty left-leaning. I garden and compost. I’m the sort of person who entertains myself making jam, pickles, and chicken broth from scratch. I drive a Civic Hybrid. Indeed, were it not for the fact that I’m allergic to patchouli, I might be in danger of being mistaken for a dirty hippie. Add to that the fact that I grew up in rural Wisconsin, where the nearest town got its Walmart in the late 80s.

It was recently announced that Walmart is intending to open one of their neighborhood markets (a smaller scale store selling only groceries) within walking distance of my house. There’s been a great deal of discussion in the comments on altadenablog (for example here and here). It seems to be basically a done deal, but some members of the community are mobilizing against Walmart anyway.

I’ll admit that in the grand scheme of things another grocery two blocks from the existing Super King is probably not exactly what the neighborhood needs. On the other hand, the site is a building that’s been abandoned the entire seven years I’ve been visiting/living in the neighborhood. At a certain point I think you can make an argument that anything in the space is more productive than nothing.

Of course the Walmart opponents don’t agree. At the same time, though, the opponents don’t seem to recognize the difficulties involved with economic development on the west side of Altadena. One of the organizers is quoted as saying “I don’t think that no one else wants [the building] — if you look at yourself as the ghetto, that’s what you’ll be.” Let’s ignore for a moment the invocation of the G-word, which strikes me as incredibly problematic (but also par for the course when discussing this side of town). I have to wonder where all the someone elses that might want that building, that corner, have been for the past three quarters of a decade.

I’m relatively new to the neighborhood. I’ve only lived here for five years. In that time, though, I’ve watched unfolding drama surrounding the Lincoln Crossing development, just South of the proposed Walmart site. Phase one of the project was to house a 24 Hour Fitness, a Bank of America Branch, a grocery, and an assortment of local businesses. The local businesses have had a hard time of it. The first grocery store closed and was replaced with the Super King, which has been quite successful (but is not an Altadena-based business) Phase two of the project was supposed to be built across the street, but seems like it will never materialize. That history makes it pretty clear that filling in the vacancies along Lincoln with local businesses is a bit easier said than done.

None of that, though, answers the question of whether a grocery store built by Walmart is an acceptable development in one’s community. I’ll concede that the effects of Walmart on local economies are probably, at best, neutral and potentially negative. It is not clear to me, though, that this is a function of something unique about Walmart rather than just a function of the effects of large corporate retail. The opponents of Walmart seem to shop happily at Target. And indeed the argument has been made more than once in the comment threads of the above posts that what Altadena really needs is a Trader Joes. I’d like to see research that actually compares the labor practices of those stores with the allegedly terrible practices of Walmart. It’s hard to quantify and compare, but I have little patience for those who point to the low pay, reliance on part time workers, and labor violations of Walmart without asking how prevalent these problems are among other employers.

My mother, for example, works on the phones for a large catalog retailer. One that most of the people who turn up their noses in disgust at Walmart would happily shop from. The company relies heavily on part-time and seasonal workers. They are non-union. Their health insurance policies are expensive, don’t have great coverage, and aren’t available to all workers. They have various policies in place that are pretty clearly not 100% legal. Still, for the area it’s a pretty good job. Since my mother had polio as a child she can’t work a job that requires her to be on her feet. So it’s a good fit in that regard. But aside from the ability to spend the day sitting down, it’s not clear to me that her job is actually a significantly better job in terms of pay, benefits, or hours than working for Walmart would be. My mother shops at Walmart, by the way. She works part time retail with crappy benefits. She can’t really afford not to.

It’s also worth noting as a point of comparison that according to this article at Business Insider, Walmart’s average wage for sales associates is $11.75 per hour, compared to the $12.04 per hour average for all retail employers.  That overall average likely includes Walmart, which is a huge employer (meaning they potentially could pull the overall average down) so a better comparison would be to the average of non-Walmart retail employers. Nonetheless, when you take into account that places that have Walmarts tend to be labor markets with relatively low average wages to begin with, you would wholly expect that even if Walmart were paying what amounts to “good” wages in the markets they’re in, Walmart’s wages would be lower than national retail jobs overall.

The anti-Walmart folks get pretty up-in-arms about how Walmart is bad for everyone. They cite statistics about the mom-and-pop shops that go under in the wake of Walmart’s arrival. I’ll admit that argument always sways me for a moment. I remember how my parents and their friends expressed that frustration when Walmart opened in my home town. But then I remember that we started shopping there, and I remember why. We started shopping at Walmart because they sold things the Ben Franklin downtown (which did go out of business almost right away) didn’t. We could buy more stuff for less money at Walmart. Sure the quality wasn’t great, but I don’t think it was any worse than what you could get at Ben Franklin (I was too young to be able to say for sure, though, since mostly what I remember from BF is the toy section where everything was all the same brands both places anyway).

Walmart drives other businesses out because they meet a need. People shop there rather than shopping at their local stores because it appeals in some way. Probably it’s mostly because they can buy more for less. Is that a good thing? Maybe not. But it’s not a problem with Walmart being evil. If it’s a problem it’s a problem with a culture focused on consumerism. It is easy to wring your hands and say we should all shop local, even if it costs more, even if the quality isn’t actually better for that cost. But when you say that to someone without a lot of money, what you’re saying is “you should have less.” And that’s fine. I actually think that most of us in this country actually would benefit from less stuff. The thing is, if your point is really that we should all have less stuff, buy less stuff, throw away less stuff then your problem isn’t just with Walmart. It’s with all the places selling things we don’t really need, things manufactured in countries where pay is abysmal and labor conditions are dangerous.

What it comes down to for me is that I have yet to see any compelling evidence of a major difference between Walmart and Target (or any of the other big box stores), aside from how comfortable middle-income folks feel shopping there. If you will happily hop in your gas-guzzling SUV to drive Target and fill your cart with imported plastic crap while decrying the labor practices of Walmart and laughing uproariously at the People of Walmart website, I have to admit that I won’t take you seriously. At that point all I hear in the critiques is “Walmart is for poor people, and I don’t like that.” Because here’s the thing Walmart is for poor people. And telling poor people what’s good for them, why they shouldn’t aspire to the conspicuous consumption that dominates this country’s culture, isn’t actually promoting economic justice. It’s really just classism.

Do I want a Walmart grocery store around the corner from my house? Not really. But I’m not happy about the vacant building either. On balance something seems like a better choice for the space than nothing. I don’t think Walmart will significantly hurt Super King (so many people come from out of the area to shop there that it’s pretty clear that they have other choices and are choosing SK because it meets their needs). It might hurt the local pharmacy. But probably any new corporate pharmacy would hurt the local pharmacy. I can’t imagine we’d see such ugly critique if a CVS was going into the space.

It’s one thing, to my mind, to decry large corporate retail, to point out the ways that public policy favors big box stores and national chains over small businesses. Or you can critique our culture of consume, consume, consume. Or you can ask why we produce and distribute food the way we do, and how the way subsidies are structured affects the relative prices of fresh foods versus processed foods. You could even ask about enforcement of labor policies or question how we gain access to health care in this country and how wages are determined. Those sorts of critiques I’ll listen to. But if what you want is the status quo minus Walmart? I’m sorry. I just don’t have the patience for that. If you think Walmart is a problem, then it’s a symptom of a larger one. And insisting that I should have an abandoned building rather than a thriving business in my neighborhood isn’t going to fix that.

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