A Wal-Mart Grows in Wyoming

In Rock Springs, Wyoming, the winds are so fierce that they will slam your car door against your leg if you don't pay attention. Because trona and coal mining are the main industries in town, generations of families fill graveyard shifts that are both physically demanding and life threatening.

Shaped by the natural resources that surround it, Rock Springs is filled with small businesses that cater to the needs of its residents. Growing up in a family that started its own business, Smyth Printing, I was raised to believe in the importance of customer service, fast turn-around, and quality products. For twenty-five years, my parents have established partnerships within the community. City Market was the local grocery store where we shopped. I got my hair cut at Lynn's beauty salon and ate cookies at Fred's bakery.

Now, all of those businesses have been wiped out and in their place stands a massive concrete box called Wal-Mart. This economic giant looms across the street from Smyth Printing and has terminated the business we did with these independent stores. The literal shadow it casts over the shop is a constant reminder of the threat it poses to my family's livelihood. As my parents grow older, I realize that our business is a leg that could get slammed in the door of Wal-Mart.

From a young age I have observed and participated in the process of offering a distinctive, personalized approach to the business world. After school I began answering the phones by saying, "Good evening; Smyth Printing. How may I help you?" I practiced those words a million times in my head so my father wouldn't give me his typical speech, "Dealing with the customer and making a good first impression are crucial to running a successful business."

If I was far from the phone I would sprint to pick it up, because it wasn't allowed to ring more than three times before somebody answered it. I watched my dad run the press smoothly and efficiently. My mom, the graphic artist, worked directly with the customer to create a product they wanted. If a customer wanted a business card with a picture of a bucking bronco, she created it. If they didn't like the way it looked, she re-did it. It was as simple as that. Wal-Mart doesn't have a printing department yet, but I wonder how long it will be before they add it to their repertoire.

According to Wake Up Wal-Mart, "Over the course of a few years after Wal-Mart entered a community, retailers' sales of mens' and boys' apparel dropped 44 percent on average, hardware sales fell by 31 percent, and lawn and garden sales fell by 26 percent."

Is the world of small businesses on the verge of extinction? Working for Smyth Printing during the past two summers of my college career, I have begun to master a trade. I can handle thousands of sheets of paper, work the monster cutter without losing a finger, and precisely pad or collate NCR paper (that would be a kind of carbon paper to you). Hospital forms are three-hole drilled and shrink wrapped in hundreds. The wrap-around books are scored to 1/2 inch, folded, and stapled. Rather than relying on commercials or full page ads in the newspaper, our salesperson goes out into the community every day to personally advertise our services. Boxes are hand labeled and packed when a product needs to be shipped. We reach out to the community with our own hands, sponsoring Little League and United Way.

So what happens if Wal-Mart decides to open a printing department and make itself an even more super Super Center? Every time I come back to this town, I discover vacant lots where small businesses used to live. These holes weaken the structure of our community and corral the citizens to shop at Wal-Mart.

Wondering how such an enormous business functions in comparison to Smyth Printing, my dad and I cross the street to explore the Super Center. As I gaze down at the shopping list, I mentally note we need bread, milk, and toothpaste. We park the car and head toward the bustle and neon lights. Behind the sliding doors, a man and woman stand on opposite sides. I smile at these "personal greeters" and only receive blank stares in return. After passing the two statues rendered in human form, I realize this place is filled with a variety of name-brand products and generic employees. I wasn't looking for a two-armed bear hug, but some signs of life would have been nice.

I guess the poverty-level wages they are paid could dampen their pleasant personalities. "In 2003, sales associates, the most common job in Wal-Mart, earned on average $8.23 an hour for annual wages of $13,861. The 2003 poverty line for a family of three was $15,260."

We grab a cart and devise a game plan to maneuver efficiently through this oversized building. A lady with her handful of children accidentally rams our cart, initiating the bumper car ride towards the toothpaste. Passing city blocks of clothing, jewelry, and kitchenware, we finally approach the personal hygiene section where I scan the array of colors, shapes and sizes that are offered on the massive toothpaste shelf.

Finally, I discover Crest Original but it is located three feet above me so I search for an employee to help. The first one I spot can't stop because he is being called by management to the baby clothing section. The second one works strictly in the mechanical department and is already behind schedule on an oil change, so I track down a metal ladder myself. To cap off this rather impersonal, compartmentalized shopping experience, we are herded out through the check-out chute and into the parking lot with the echo of "have a nice day" ringing in our ears.

Back across the street at Smyth Printing, my parents have established a small business whose primary focus is narrowly defined by a particular trade, not five or six. While the nation's largest retailer is struggling to defend itself from public attack on their poverty wages and stingy health care plan, we are looking for ways to keep my family business afloat. While carrying boxes of envelopes into Hemphill Trucking, the owners chat with my father about the booming natural gas wells up North.

Back in the van we head to our next location and continue the same routine that we have performed for close to thirty years. Yet, I can't help but notice how the number of deliveries has shrunk considerably during the past two years. How long my family business is going to survive I can't predict, but quietly trying to persevere isn't going to cut it -- families with small businesses need to start talking about our situation. Perhaps Wal-Mart does represent inevitable economic winds of change; nonetheless, we need to fight to protect the small businesses and independent spirit of towns like Rock Springs, Wyoming.

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