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Walmart, what happened? We wuz tight.

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Back in the early 90’s when you first went national you were something special. You made the other discount stores look like amateur-hour. Kmart had always seemed sickly. Cheap-ass items in dingy stores manned by indifferent people in brown smocks.

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Suddenly, Walmart was there. Brightly-lit palaces offering everything under one roof, open 24 hours. Employees seemed bright and cheery, like they’d just had rah-rah session with the founder himself. Flags on shelves and bins shouted Proudly made in the USA! Some went into greater detail. Twelve jobs in Waxahachie, Texas (or wherever) were sustained thanks to the miracle of American commerce this roll of duct tape represented. It felt good to go to Walmart. When I walked through those doors, it was almost a patriotic act. I was supporting the American dream by buying that laundry basket or fishing reel from you guys. I even owned a few hundred shares of your stock.

Today? To quote Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever: You used to be a nice girl. Now look at you. You a whooyah. 

I think I first noticed things changing when I took my Jeep to you for an oil change almost fifteen years ago. An employee waltzed up to me in the waiting area. His sole function seemed to be as a sort of cheerleader, glad-handing me while pointing out the great job your techs did there in the service bays. I nodded. I smiled. But of course, my good man!  When I got the car back, it only took a few miles to realize something was wrong: A six-cylinder Jeep takes six quarts. The V8 only takes five. Those technicians were doing such a great job that they put in an extra quart. They didn’t bother checking before they handed me the keys. That sort of thing destroys engines.

But still, I believed.

I believed that the toaster oven I bought from you was the same quality I’d find anywhere. It said “General Electric” on it, after all. And GE had a brand to protect. When that appliance nearly set my house on fire a few weeks later, I unplugged it and turned it over. It said “Made in China especially for Walmart.” GE are no fools. If you chisel down their margins to making pure crap you insist they still brand as their own, they’re going to give themselves an out. It was GE’s way of saying “Walmart made us put out this piece of shit. Talk to them if it breaks. Or burns down your house.”

But still, I believed.

I started to notice everything I bought from you felt chintzy. It broke early or never really worked right in the first place. I noticed the “Made in USA” signs had disappeared from the shelves. For good reason: Everything came from China, instead. I noticed your staff looking more tired, the aisles less tidy. I noticed fewer choices in almost every category. You had winnowed down your suppliers. Many had gone out of business. Some couldn’t compete. Some chose not to. A Walmart contract started looking like their own suicide note.

But still, I wanted to believe. It was just getting harder.

Then, I was stuck in rural Nevada and needed tires. I had bought my mom’s old car knowing they’d need to be replaced before making the trip back to Denver. I rolled into your store in Fernley one Sunday afternoon. I thought if anything, I could still depend on you for tires in a rural location.

Two twenty-somethings in blue smocks sat behind the counter.

“Hi, I need tires.”
They looked at each other and sneered.
“Uhh. . . there’s a Les Schwab down the street, y’know.”
“You don’t sell tires?” I squinted.
“Well . . . hehehehehe . . . yeah, I mean, but . . . ” he shook his head.
“It’s Sunday. I don’t even think Les Schwab is open now,” I said.
“Well, I mean, ok . . . but. . . . ”

After begging him to sell me tires, he finally relented. He nearly spat on the menu as he showed me my choices. It was as through I had asked him to sell me some pruning shears specifically to cut off my own nuts.

Later, I realized the problem. Those “Goodyear” tires were crap. They were half-worn out when I sold the car barely ten thousand miles later. The kid in your own store was sabotaging your business model to protect his community. I mean, he lived there. He needed to look people in the eye at the bowling alley each weekend. You didn’t.

Finally, I understood. You had pulled off possibly the greatest bait-and-switch screwjob on the American public, ever. It’s through small things like tire sales that such revelations become known.

That was about seven years ago. It was at that point I decided I was done with you. In the time since, I’ve heard other onetime-believers tell their own reasons for leaving you behind. Low quality. Horrendous service. Being treated like a criminal in the stores. Unexplained extra ingredients in private-label groceries.

I started realizing the cranky liberals weren’t just being jealous or bleeding-hearted in their denunciations of you. I learned that you manipulate schedules to keep people part-timers so they can’t claim federal worker protections. You lay off people who threaten to develop any tenure. You hand new employees forms to enroll in foodstamps, WIC, and Medicare on the first day of work. Most of your employees can’t survive on what you pay them. This is your MO: shift the burden of your employees to the public. It’s the high cost of low prices. We’re all subsidizing those twenty-dollar blenders in some way. Walmart is a private business supported by taxes.

And in fact, these liberal cranks I had dismissed at one time finally produced numbers to prove one thing I had long feared:  Poverty actually increases in the area of each new store you open. It’s like you invented an economic slavery atom bomb, with each Supercenter its ground-zero.

And now, you’ve finally admitted it. But you’re not really going to change. Why should you? You have America in a death-grip.

But people are waking up. Even the most simple consumers have caught on. You can’t even keep them happy now.

One lady I know said she realized that she had to buy a new $20 purse from you guys each year, whereas the $30 one she got from Target had lasted her five. These people aren’t cranky socialists. They’re your core market. Discount shoppers. People who buy purses at Walmart. Or probably only Target now, going forward.

But, I still fully agree with your slogan, though I would add one thing: Save Money, Live Better. Avoid Walmart.

 

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