Saturday, May 28, 2005

New Walmart superstore: a capsule review

As I remarked somewhere else, I don't get out much, culturally, and so when Walmart opened a new superstore not far from my house, I resolved to go visit it, see what it was all about.

I won't say the thing was built instantaneously, but it went from the phase of bulldozers demolishing the roadside rinkydink beer joints and knocking down the previous seedy sales outlets for repossessed single-wide trailer houses, to the finished product store like a toadstool after a rain, in a surprisingly short time. The superstore is surrounded by satellite businesses--a PetSmart, a Payless shoe store, a Whataburger hamburger stand, a 14-bay gas station, and a sit-down food franchise the name of which I forget where the waitpersonnel wear matching goofy uniforms. All the businesses have been unloaded from the truck with coordinated falsefront-saloon decor. They are surrounded by a vast expanse of asphalt with little islands of overnight-landscaping. Amazing.

Like I say, this is all new to me, so bear with me--I know I may sound like someone returned from abroad, wide-eyed with astonishment after too many years in a country with oxcarts, and that most Americans know all about this. But maybe not. We all (well, maybe not George Bush) have been in a Walmart store, but not necessarily like the one under review. It's like the difference between a rusty tramp steamer plodding along and a double hulled supertanker drawing down the water in the sound as it passes. Size is part of it. Plus it's all new right now. None of the automatic doors have out-of-order signs on them yet, nor has a significant percentage of merchandise gotten damaged on the shelves before purchase, as in, polyethylene trash cans with the lids already broken; and the entire store still has its carcinogenic new-plastic smell.

As I entered, past large bins of day-glow injection-foam flip-flop sandals for $1.94 a pair, the music that I could hear intermittently between requests for a manager at register eleven and cleanup on isle 24, and bursts of intercom throat-clearing, coalesced into recognition as a slow and desperately sad version of "Georgie Girl." I don't know why that seemed poignant to me, but it did.

In some ways it is just like any other cheap store. Only huge. Much more huge than any I have been in heretofore. Acres. The clothing section by itself was the size of a large free-standing clothing store. The grocery section was the size of a large grocery store. The miscellaneous junk section of the store was the size of an entire normal Walmart. I have to say, though, that the hardware section was relatively puny compared with, say, a standard-issue Home Depot, but now that I think about it, a Home Depot had already sprung up a few months earlier diagonally across the intersection. They must have a deal. This Walmart superstore seems to be mostly clothes, groceries, and housewares. Cheap. Cheap, cheap, cheap, in every sense of the word, the sacrificial offerings of sweatshops and child labor hellholes from every shingle and strand of a globalized world.

Plus, the store has amenities, like: an in-store McDonalds. Busy, too. A Woodforest Bank, whose only visible employee was wearing a red white and blue Uncle Sam top hat so patriots would trust him with their earnestly filled-out credit card applications; a nail care salon; a beauty parlor; a portrait studio; a cell-phone franchise, Cingular if I remember right; a garden shop; a pharmacy; and an auto shop. And I think I forgot one or two.

Um, OK, what did you expect? one may ask.

Well, for one thing, I expected there would be more minorities shopping there. (No shortage of minorities _working_ there.) I was surprised. I think this is a failure of their business plan. I saw almost no African Americans, and given that it is in the part of town where a vast majority of residents are Mexican Americans or Mexican nationals, a relative deficiency of brown-skinned people buying things. It's not that Walmart doesn't want the trade of people who don't speak English. They are ideal Walmart clients. What could be better than customers who do not have the slightest idea, beyond the price, what the hell they are getting. I think it is simply that Walmart hasn't gotten the right local product mix yet. Give 'em time, I suppose.

I think they will need to calibrate their product line like my grocery store does. My grocery store, about a mile away, has 12 varieties of chili peppers (some of them are dried, of course.) I counted, yesterday, and right now peppers are out of season. Plus tomatillos and jícamas and half an aisle of tortillas. This same grocery store has close to 30 kinds of peppers, fresh and dried, available in late August. (Again, I counted.)

Whereas the grocery section in the new Walmart had only bell peppers for the Anglos and a big bin of jalapeños for the Mexicans. This clearly will not suffice to drive my well-adapted local supermarket out of business.

I was not impressed. I give it several thumbs down.

After my walk-thru of the megastore, I continued another half mile on the same road, to Mary Seawright Park, a very nice, large city park surrounded now by the city. The park has several miles of woodsy trails. It was a beautiful warm late spring day, but hot. I walked a mile or so under the live oaks, surrounded by the songs of invisible cardinals. Lots of painted buntings, too--they have thin, twisting songs that drift in the mind like falling tinsel. Off in the distance, crows were complaining about something, a raptor, probably. We should do the same.

After the Walmart: Oak trees with ball moss
oak branches

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