We’re all in this together

Many people tell me they don’t shop at Wal-Mart; I usually respond that I try not to shop at Wal-Mart. When visiting my family in rural west Tennessee, there are very few other places left to shop. Growing up in a small town laid bare by large corporate retailers, I have a visceral dislike for most big-box stores because of their devastating effect on small towns and urban centers. My father-in-law, Bill, was an early casualty. He graduated from pharmacy school, worked day and night to purchase an established business and a year later Wal-Mart arrived. As was so common, they put most of the local pharmacies out of business selling specific prescription drugs below costs. Bill died of stress related problems at age 48. I don’t blame Wal-Mart for his death but thousands like him selling auto parts, clothing, groceries, and hardware suffered from this unfair but legal business strategy.

“How much inconvenience would you suffer to make a point?”

Wal-Mart asserts they provide needed jobs to struggling communities, low-cost goods to folks strapped for cash, improved tax revenues, a vast selection, and one-stop-shopping. But they also pay low wages and offer meager benefits to employees while switching suppliers who give them the cheapest price. When the Detroit automobile manufacturers reigned, workers across the nation flocked to their doors for high paying jobs and generous benefits. Now Wal-Mart tops the list of successful corporations but rather than set an envious example, they gloat in their frugality while bombarding us with claims of “green” policies as if this makes it acceptable. When I’m in a great hurry and in need of an array of goods, I will go to Wal-Mart for the one-stop-shopping advantage. Does it cheapen my overall message? Yes. But they won and we lost. I hate Walgreens too but it’s two blocks from my house. How much inconvenience would you suffer to make a point?

Fortunately, companies like Costco, Trader Joes, Hobby Lobby, and many others prove that fair employee wages and low customer prices are compatible. Costco wages are typically 10% higher than competitors (beginning at $11.50 per hour) and employees earn an average of $45,000 per year. Hobby Lobby recently raised its minimum wage to $14 per hour for full-time employees. Trader Joes’ entry employees earn between $10 and $20 per hour.

I grew up in a small village in Tennessee about the size of Lima. We had two grocery stores, two auto part stores, a butcher, a jeweler, a hardware store, shoe repair shop, two barber shops, three hair salons, two flower shops, an appliance repair shop, two pharmacies, a Western Auto, etc. Life was an economic symbiosis. Everyone shopped with everyone else; there was no need to leave town; when farmers had a good year, everyone else did, too. On Saturdays streets were crowded with shoppers and visitors longing to get out of the house or off the farm. This was commerce and community. Now there’s little left as the downtown corridor crumbles into obscurity. Take a drive across America and you’ll see this is our not-so-new reality.

Many rural shoppers have no other choice but to give Wal-Mart a captive audience despite long lines, poor service, cheap foreign-made goods, and centralized store locations that make it difficult for many elderly and needy people to access. Recognizing the need to revitalize communities and urban neighborhoods harmed by Wal-Mart and similar stores, planners and academics have studied the problem and offered means to compete. Methods include offering higher quality merchandise, targeted customer service, unusual product lines, and a unique shopping experience, for example, attractive historic neighborhoods or stark industrial districts turned urbane.

Sound familiar? This is a perfect description of the South Wedge. As a southern transplant and current Brighton resident, I’ve seen many areas across the country wax and wane and it always appeared to me the Wedge was a sure thing. It took a decade or two but the Wedge has become an exciting destination with an array of unexpected shopping and eating experiences. Next time you consider driving to the ‘burbs for a gift or meal or anything, really, think about the cost of gas; better still, think about shopping or eating with your neighbors. The holidays are coming and vendors in the Wedge will be glad to see you.

In the meantime, I don’t fret about Wal-Mart. Last week I heard they were worried about their biggest competitor, Amazon. Maybe it’s true that what goes around comes around.