Walmart – Bad for America?

This article in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages highlights some problems within the structure of Wal-Mart’s corporate society. I’ve notice other problems relating to Wal-Mart, which I’ll highlight here. I’m sure this post will bring some interesting responses.

Unless Wal-Mart reinvents itself, soon, it will go the way of Kmart… and I think this trend has already begun. My observation of Kmart comes at the price of many years of school-yard ridicule for wearing knock-off jeans and nagahide bomber jackets. (I now protest the depletion of the vast herds of naga.)

Kmart always low-balled prices, and in so doing their targeted clientele were the working-poor and low-middle class who needed the bargain. Kmart also followed the tradition that more-is-better in respect to stock on-hand and thus whenever a ‘new thing’ came out, Kmart carried it. As the years went by, that clientele shifted from generally Caucasians to minorities, locally typified as migrant workers from Central America hired to pick produce in the local fields of Northern California. Their tastes and styles were reflected by the products Kmart carried. Suddenly the clothing shifted to garish plaids (sorry Mr. Neilsen) and strange foods. Eventually, in attempting to provide even lower prices that their new base could afford, they began selling products that were of even lesser quality and eventually the these types of products carried no longer appealed to the original customer base.

Kmart’s aisles became cluttered and disorganized and the whole store, nearly every one you might visit, was trashed. Finally, when trying on a pair of pants I was greeted with a pile of human excrement in the corner of the stall. This could all be of bad hiring practices, poor management or a number of other things (and certainly are); however I believe that they also reflect the mindset of those who, while visiting their local store, left wearing 5 of those plaid shirts, unpaid. It seemed to me that in so shifting their scope, Kmart lost their foundation clients who originally went there for the nagahide and yet were planning to return for the Panasonic TV and in turn was seeking clients who weren’t used to American-style markets where changing rooms didn’t double for toilets.

Now, I by no way mean to imply that every migrant, every Hispanic, etc has no common sense or anything of the sort. I was and I am friends with many people of minority background who would also find such things disturbing, however, Kmart wasn’t targeting people interested in becoming part of our society, but those who visited the US temporarily and had no intentions of staying. Like the folks who rent a cabin for a weekend and leave it trashed, some of these folks seem intent on using the US and leaving the lights on.

Fast forward a few years and where I live now I’ve got a Wal-Mart about a mile away. When we first moved to this location we were happy at the proximity given Wal-Mart’s selection of products. However, within a year I noticed a similar shift going on at Wal-Mart. The aisles became cluttered, the lines longer, the products on-hand were of terrible quality and the whole experience became such that I simply refused to shop there. The single event that sealed my opinion occurred while waiting in an overly-long line. I was subjected to an overly loud commercial blasting at me from a finger-print smudged LCD screen. The real clincher was… it was in Spanish.

I live in a very ethnically diverse area, and I enjoy the diversity. The local Asian market down the street offers many goods that I would normally not see or try. There is also a very unusual, rancid actually, smell to the market. I understand that it comes from the dried fish aisle, but to one who has never visited such a place, that smell would certainly drive them away. But that said, I expect that smell when I enter this market, it’s an Asian market, targeting the local population of Asians for whom dried fish is a normal smell. Thus I don’t expect them to have commercials in English advertising their dried fish to me. We also have a large Hispanic population nearby, and there you’d be hard-pressed to find signage, advertisements or products labeled in English. Which is understandable, to some extent? But was does my local Wal-Mart blast a commercial at me in a language other than that I was taught in school?

Now I realize that English-speakers are not the only folks who visit Wal-Mart, and I understand their desire to attract further customers and inform them of other products available, but Wal-Mart needs to be conscious of this decision they’re making to appeal to non-English speakers and those who seem intent on not conforming or are simply visitors here and the problems it may lead.

When I saw this commercial, standing line at Wal-Mart, I realized that I wasn’t their target client any longer. They did have a commercial in English soon-thereafter, but the whole experience reminded me of Kmart and suddenly the out-of-control appearance of my local Wal-Mart began to make sense. Is it possible that by targeting clients who have little interest in the ongoing success of your store, your community, or your country you’re also hurting your own bottom line?

There’s much more to this than what I’ve said here. Questions of targeted advertising, community-matched products and the like all relate to a store’s success or failure. Perhaps also I’m shopping in the ‘wrong places’. I find myself at Target now much more often than ever at Wal-Mart. There I find I’m surrounded by as diverse a collection of people as at Wal-Mart, but then again, I don’t find Target aggressively marketing products in foreign languages on LCD screens… yet.

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