Wal-Mart Guilt: Many shop the store, but don’t like it

By Rachel Sauer The Gazette (KRT) All we want is some milk and light bulbs. That’s it. Two things. No philosophizing, no moralizing and certainly no emotional angst. Just milk and light bulbs. It’s simple. Except it’s not simple. Not at Wal-Mart. Not at the world’s largest retailer. The triumph of Wal-Mart has given rise to a unique dilemma that, for lack of an official name, we’ll call Wal-Mart Guilt. Specifically, 100 million people worldwide shop there each week but some of them don’t like it. They don’t like the bigness or the sameness, they don’t like what they’ve heard about labor abuses and gender inequity in pay, they don’t like the crowds or long check-out lines, they don’t like the idea of venerable mom-and-pop stores being replaced by a big box. But they like saving money. And they like the convenience of having groceries and general merchandise in one place. “People will say that Wal-Mart is taking over the world, but they will shop there,” said Edward Fox, chairman of the J.C. Penney Center for Retail Excellence at Southern Methodist University. “There is a compelling value difference between what people say and what they do. And we tend to follow our economic self-interest.” So there’s Wal-Mart. Founded 40 years ago in Bentonville, Ark., by Sam Walton, Wal-Mart now is the world’s largest private employer. More than 1.3 million people in nine countries work at Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Neighborhood Markets and Asda supermarkets, a Wal-Mart-owned chain in England. With about 4,300 stores and nearly $250 billion in revenue last year, Wal-Mart can eliminate distributors and buy directly from producers and manufacturers. Thus the lower prices. Thus the beginnings of inner conflict for some shoppers. “I would love to be able to shop someplace else,” said Sara Walke, who teaches English as a Second Language in Colorado Springs, Colo. “But I shop there because I save a significant amount of money on my grocery bill.” Walke and her husband have two sons, ages 2 and 5, and a tight household budget, the result of his being unable to find a full-time job. Walke said she is bothered by what she’s heard about Wal-Mart’s pay practices and health benefits for its employees, but appreciates the money she saves and the time-saving convenience of one-stop shopping. “I guess we all have a certain level of tolerance for how far we’re willing to look the other way,” she said. Some don’t consider it looking the other way, but making compromises. Gwen Stoll, a Colorado Springs teacher, lives a few blocks from a Wal-Mart Supercenter. She said she buys her groceries at local grocers but general merchandise at Wal-Mart. “I believe this is a store that deals in abuse and deals abuse, but it’s the cheapest store in town,” she said. “It’s that rank kind of consumerism. You feel bad about what you’re doing and when you’re there you think, `I don’t want to be here, but I am.'” John Bisio, a regional manager of community affairs for Wal-Mart, said the phenomenon of Wal-Mart Guilt is caused, in part, by misinformation. “If you did your homework and talked to many of these communities where we call home, be it your economic development commission or city council or chamber of commerce, you’ll find the Wal-Mart effect has been a very good one,” he said. “The predicted bankruptcies and foreclosures of other businesses did not happen, but rather the opposite effect happened. New businesses came as a result of Wal-Mart being in their community, or existing merchants and retail benefited from that customer traffic the new Wal-Mart provided or drew. And it’s not just that, but also then people find out firsthand what kind of good corporate citizen Wal-Mart is.” Despite the Boy Scout bake sales by the front door and school supply give-aways, however, some people still don’t feel right about shopping at Wal-Mart. Maybe it’s tied to our willingness to champion free-market capitalism and the American Dream only to the point where we deem it too big. Then the successful entrepreneur becomes the villain who’s trying to take over everything, and we mourn small business. “People often say that Wal-Mart puts the downtown shops out of business, and I beg to differ because it’s not Wal-Mart who does that,” said Fox of Southern Methodist University. “Wal-Mart offers us consumers an additional shopping option. If we choose to avail ourselves of that option, then we are the ones putting the downtown stores out of business.” So Wal-Mart thrives despite the guilt. People may flood the Internet with Web logs complaining about Wal-Mart and protest every new store opening, but still the parking lots are almost always full. “I compare it to green, or environmentally friendly, goods,” Fox said. “You ask people if they use favor these goods and they say `Absolutely, I care about the environment and I will buy things that are environmentally friendly,’ but in practice they don’t. They just won’t forgo the economic value of buying something cheaper for something that’s grown in environmentally friendly ways or manufactured in environmentally friendly ways.” ___ ‘copy 2003, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.). Visit GT Online, the World Wide Web site of The Gazette, at http://www.gazette.com Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.