In general, I avoid shopping at Wal-Mart. Not because I don’t like shopping there– I love being able to buy a CD and a box of cereal and a bike helmet and Christmas lights and a waffle maker (for example) all in one place. I love that it’s always, or almost always, open. I love that I can count on there being one pretty much anywhere I travel in the U.S. And who doesn’t love low prices?
BUT then I remember: Wal-Mart also treats their workers like crap– paying them just enough that they can’t escape poverty, that they need food stamps and other public assistance programs just to get by. They never close, which means someone is always obligated to be there, eventually at the expense of their own health and well-being. Where those someones are parents, this in turn takes it toll on kids, whose parents are working long and crazy hours to pay the bills and don’t necessarily have the time or energy to prepare nutritious meals, help their kids with their homework, meet with teachers, or get involved in the PTA.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart comes into communities, scopes out their competition, and crushes them. The mom and pop shops don’t stand a chance. And soon, Wal-Mart’s not one place to pick up essentials– it’s the place. They wipe out everyone. Always. (Pun intended.)
Anyway, the point of this posting wasn’t to talk about the evils of Wal-Mart. It just so happens that I had a sobering lesson there recently and I want to share it.
Work shipped me off to a small town down south. A friend/colleague and I arrived late, and, in search of some snacks and a few other odds and ends at 11 pm, we ended up at the nearest 24-hour Wal-Mart. To my friend, who was less excited about the late-night excursion, I joked, “Haven’t you seen any of those websites? The People of Wal-Mart? The Wal-Martians? Going to a rural Wal-Mart at 11:00 in the middle of the week is an experience. It’ll be fun. Trust me.”
Except that within about 5 minutes of walking through the door I found myself thinking about what an @sshole I was for saying that and for being so cavalier about the realities of life that bring people to Wal-Mart on a Tuesday night at 11 pm. An obviously overtired dad in a polo with a name-tag still pinned on, pushing a stroller, grabbing groceries. In the checkout line, a (possibly single) mom with two rambunctious little boys exalting at being out and about long past their bedtime. What’s Mom buying? Soda, Sunny D, Lunchables, and various other over-processed, high sodium, high sugar products that pack high caloric intent at unbeatable Wal-Mart prices but also increase her kids’ risk of becoming obese and getting childhood diabetes.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, go to a 24 hour Wal-Mart in the middle of the week, and you might see some strange things. But then again, you might just see the working poor. The forgotten men and women who vacuum our offices, make our sandwiches, drive our buses, even watch our children, and then scurry home long after we do to microwave dinner and then trek out to Wal-Mart, the only place still open to buy necessities. These are the people who will work hard every single day of their lives but probably won’t escape poverty. And they are here, not because they forgot a toothbrush and don’t want to get one of the el-cheapo freebee ones they’ll give you at the hotel, but because it’s open at 11 pm, and they might be able to buy more here with their hard-earned dollars.
This realization on my part was by no means profound, but it hit me hard when I wasn’t expecting it. I guess it serves me right.