A Moral Dilemma: What About Walmart?

Most of my regular readers know how I feel about Walmart: I despise them. They run local businesses out, they use shady practices to lower their prices, etc. We have a standing rule that the only time we shop there is if we 100% need something and no where else in town carries it and/or the need is immediate.  Generally, this mostly applies to prescriptions. There are times when literally no other pharmacy in town carries something, and it’ll either take days to get or they can’t order it at all. In places we’ve lived in the past, Walmart has also often been the only 24-hour pharmacy, and there’ve been a few times that’s been pretty important (they’re not 24 hours here, however).

About once a year, I do an investigative shopping trip to compare prices, selection, and service with other local stores. Every year, I’ve been proven pretty much right: on top of the issues I have with Walmart’s overall business practices, prices aren’t really lower overall, service sucks, and the selection was “meh,” at best.

Until today.

Here’s how it went: It was with a feeling of dread I walked into Walmart today. I hate doing this annual trip. It’s draining, it’s depressing, and I really don’t have time. However, if I am going to intelligently argue against Walmart with people, I need the first hand knowledge. Today, I didn’t leave feeling drained, tired, or depressed, I left confused.

The produce was gorgeous, and there was a wide selection, including some off-beat seasonal fruits from other parts of the country. The meat looked great, and the prices were lower by a fair margin than the other stores I mentioned (yes, I do local, but not everyone does; so, I still need to compare prices). The overall grocery selection was far and away better, and certainly far better organized, than any of the local stores. It was clean, well-stocked, and well-lit. The employees were ridiculously helpful and friendly, even when I asked for off-beat and obscure stuff (yes, this is intentional). One employee walked me from his department all the way across the store to the section I needed for one tiny item, and he was happy about it, asking pertinent questions and giving engaged answers the whole way. The cashier was so nice, and so apparently sincerely happy to talk to me, that I was almost a bit weirded out. Who’s that happy working at Walmart? Well, it appears she is. She asked me if I was new to the area (I wrote a check, and it asked for ID, which only happens if you’re not in their system, which I was not), and told me how much they appreciated my business, and hoped I would keep shopping there. And she sounded like she meant it from the bottom of her heart.

And this is where my moral dilemma comes in. You see, we have incredibly limited shopping possibilities here. As I understand it, this has always been the case–Walmart moving in didn’t actually run anyone out of business, because there wasn’t much here to begin with. The stores we do have, Food Lion and Kroger, and often inconveniently located for the majority of our population (I have no idea why this is, it just is), me included. But, I’ve been patronizing them anyway, because I loathe Walmart and they’re my only real options within about an hour.

Lately, the service and selection at all the Kroger and Food Lion stores save two have been sliding down at a rate that often means what I bought one week is no longer there the next. The produce selection at all but one store is just awful, and the “good” store that has a beautiful selection of good produce is about  a half-hour from me. Prices have been climbing exponentially at all stores, and service at all but two has gotten just plain bad. If you need help at any of the other stores, you’re just out of luck. When I ask about it, they just say corporate has decided to stop carrying as many ethnic foods, loose produce, etc., and that while they’ve gotten many complaints, there is nothing they can do.

So, here’s the dilemma: We have no truly “local” grocery stores. While Kroger and Food Lion certainly aren’t as large as Walmart, neither are they locally-owned or operated. (I wouldn’t mind the price hikes as much if the stores were smaller chains or singly-owned). They don’t pay their employees any better, and aside from some a few notable exceptions, it really has started to show. Their produce and overall selection (or, lack thereof) is making it more and more difficult for me to shop there, especially for clients. While I can adjust my menu for more locally-available items, that’s not something most of my paying clients are willing to do. And yes, I’ve talked to the store managers at the problem stores to no result.

I don’t ever see me buying anything but groceries and related items from Walmart, but I know that still supports the areas where they tend to be really egregious, like clothing. On the other hand, the other area stores are getting bad enough that I have to admit Walmart looks pretty darn attractive on the food front.

I’m mulling it over. I’ve been a staunch anti-Walmart person for many years, and this wasn’t something I ever really expected to even have to ponder. Will I switch? I don’t know. It’s not just my decision, since Thadd feels pretty much the same way I always have, and we make these kinds of decisions together. But, that I am even considering it says something about 1) what Walmart is apparently doing right, at least around here, and 2) what other stores are doing really, really wrong.


3 responses to “A Moral Dilemma: What About Walmart?

  • Stacie

    Ah, the rub–whether to get “good” stuff at a store you don’t like, or to get “blech” food at a store which is really starting to lose its appeal.

    My Wal-Mart has some good produce which I’ll buy–bananas, apples (as long as I inspect each on in the bag), and potatoes (likewise). Other produce, such as lettuce, fresh spinach, or berries I avoid. I don’t buy much meat there, as I’ve always had an issue with it going bad before it should. I haven’t had an issue with frozen fish, though.

    They are getting a better selection of “healthy” food like aluminum-free baking powder and quinoa.

    I can’t find the baby’s diapers any cheaper than Wal-Mart, but I rarely buy the kids’ clothes there. I have been able to find non-BPA sippy cups that are made in the USA, so I’m happy to buy those.

    I guess what I’m meaning to say is that you have to decide what is important to you in your situation. Everyone will make a different decision for themselves. If it’s any consolation, Wal-Mart gave away over $300 million to charity in 2007 (http://www.forbes.com/2008/10/16/most-generous-corporations-corprespons08-lead-cx_mk_1016charity.html)

    On a side note: my husband just finished a marketing class in college. He studied Wal-Mart’s business model, and since then, he pretty much agrees with you. But we do still shop there occasionally. I guess Wal-Mart is like the drunk uncle that shows up to the family reunion–nobody likes him, but he’s not going away, so you’d better just make nice.

  • shwankie

    Stacie, I love the drunk uncle analogy!

    Thadd and I’ve agreed to talk more about it over his break, and I am considering having him go in, as well, just to look around. Honestly, the thought of supporting Walmart bothers the daylights out of me, and I realize that–on some levels–doing so only makes things worse. Part of the reason Kroger and Food Lion have to “streamline” their offerings may be that Walmart is taking enough business that they can’t keep making money without doing so. Buying at Walmart would only add to that problem.

    On the other hand, it’s unlikely Walmart’s fault that only one store within 30+ minutes of me has employees who are friendly and helpful, baggers who are trained to not put my meat in with my vegetables, and a store that looks like it’s been mopped sometime in the last year or so. And, they are so inconvenient to get to that shopping there isn’t a real possibility for me much of the time. I would pay somewhat higher prices for goods at another store, but not if the goods are inferior and impossible to find.

    And, you’re right on about the charitable donations. Also, Walmart’s made more inroads into healthy foods than either of the other chains I mention. While those inroads are largely symbolic and not substantial, the others haven’t even bothered with that as far as I am aware. I really wish the good vs. evil argument had stayed as easy as it was for so long!

  • Stacie

    I totally get your point about clean and friendly stores. It doesn’t cost a company any extra money for their employees to offer cheerful, friendly customer service. And really, a mop to the floor is just basic hygiene, eh?

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