Wal-Mart frightens me. I am not afraid of many things in this world, with the exception perhaps of death and, well, spiders, but Wal-Mart generally scares me. Whenever I pass one of their mighty blue outlets, the ones that loom over you like the Ministry of Love, towering above with those bulbous white letters, my knees begin to weaken. It is the embodiment of everything I fear about the corrosion of society, it is the culmination of a thousand economic nightmares.
Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world. It's a business so large it has outlets all across America, an army of employees (more than 900,000 last count) [i], and its influence has been heard right here in Canada, as well as Britain, Mexico, Germany, Brazil, China, Korea, and Puerto Rico. A slew of stores has erupted internationally, all pulsing with activity, veins on the heart of our world.
The characteristic of Wal-Mart that scares me right to the foundation is how it is somehow managing to assimilate not just competition (which is legitimately a capitalist right, but more on that later), but it is assimilating culture itself, a theft that should be constitutionally forbidden. Wal-Mart is managing to push out the competition in industries other than retail, a move that is placing the pressure on our basic culture. Music labels place less bank on artists that are not deemed worthy of sale at Wal-Mart as it is one of the largest music dealerships in the country. Sure, you can pick up that new Limp Bizkit record (God help you), but whenever Fred decides to swear, you'll be met with a sound effect from a wide array of whistles or whipping noises. Wal-Mart places paramount concern on the conservation of "youth purity," but at the same time they are subverting the fundamentals of free speech.
I had the unfortunate experience of shopping at a Wal-Mart. I needed some essential supplies for my room (lamps, alarm clocks, phones, etc.), and never have I seen such a depressing place. It was like visiting a soup kitchen during the Great Depression: families came in, the mothers nit-picking at their daughter's hair (inevitably leading to a tantrum), and each one proceeded to stuff whatever they needed into a cart and ship it out to their SUV. It was absolutely raw, and when one of us naïve commoners (who actually wanted some service) inquired as to the product's specifics, we were met with a vacant, complacent glaze, as though the employee had just been lobotomized and still hadn't come down from the anesthesia. The prices were cheap, and those that came in clawed at the goods, scrounging ravenously through the shelves, deciphering the cryptic aisle names, and frankly, they didn't care about what they purchased.
Tom Coughlin, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Wal-Mart Stores division states on the company website that, "We want our customers to trust in our pricing philosophy and to always be able to find the lowest prices with the best possible service." The best possible service, apparently, is none at all. The culture we are losing while all of the stores across the world are absorbed into the Wal-Mart machine is being lost in a world of dirty floors, greedy consumption, and general ignorance as to what we're purchasing. So long as they're "rollin' back the prices" we'll keep on dishing out our culture for economic prostitution. Take what you need, Wal-Mart, don't worry. One day when everyone looks the same, and we all drink Pepsi (purchased from Wal-Mart) and wear American Eagle (purchased from Wal-Mart), it will be the day you grin as smugly as that god damn Robin Hood smiley-face you having working for you.
I'm still afraid of Wal-Mart, and I think I always will be. It's the sacrifice of tradition and culture for a few pennies and poorly packaged goods. The same reason people decide not to shop at Wal-Mart is the reason some of us still opt to purchase an album rather than burn it: there is something traditional, pure, and democratic about what you're doing. You aren't simply giving away your money to some thing, you are making a decision. I truly hope people one day wise up to this notion; it will probably be the same day they get more than half of Americans to show up at the polls. It's the loss of our society, our culture, our democracy, our world. Buyer beware.
Mike LaPointe is a Canadian high school student living in Port Hope, Ontario. In addition to being a published newspaper columnist, he is the editor of the online culture source Fuzed Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i], [ii] From "How Wal-Mart is Destroying America (and the World) and What You Can Do About It" by Bill Quinn