Thursday, February 10, 2005

Welcome to Wal-Mart, shoppers...

This morning I got up early and went to Wal-Mart before daybreak. Crazy, I know, but I’ve become obsessed with making collages of late, and I needed a folder to hold all supplies I've bought as well as the tidbits I’ve gleaned from magazines and newspapers. I figured it would be easier to pick up the few things I needed without the children in tow. So at 6:09 am, I backed out of the garage and made my way to the world of Wal-Mart after hours.

I’m no fan of Wal-Mart. In my humble opinion, the stores tend to be overcrowded with under priced and poorly manufactured items. Plus I’ve read too many stories about sweatshop workers in faraway places whose lives are unnecessarily miserable in order for us to smile like that yellow smily guy as he rolls back the prices. I’ve read Nickel and Dimed, and the author’s accounts of sixteen hour training sessions, urine tests, and strict vigilantism among workers and managers still cause me to shudder. I had sworn off of Wal-Mart indefinitely - unless I was desperate for something that only they offered or I needed something at an hour when only they were open. So this morning, I girded myself in excuse number 2 and set out for an early morning shopping trip.

I was absolutely shocked at what the store looked like. First of all, every door in the building was wide open. I know it’s warmer these days than normal, but it couldn’t have been more than 45 degrees outside. All the doors were open, and all the lights ablaze. The entire women’s clothing department was empty. Down to the bare wood floor – I didn’t realize the floor was wooden. I always thought it was carpeted; what followed that discovery makes me wonder if they have recently changed the flooring. The first 24 cash registers were closed and barricaded by all the rows and racks of clothes that had been displaced. There must have been 25 Wal-Mart employees gathered in that clothing area, rearranging, reshelving, removing racks from place to another, and reorganizing that entire area. The woman who happened to walk into the store just in front of me said that she works there, that a major redecoration is going on, and that the “new store” will open on April 15th. But have no fear, I was assured, Wal-Mart will remain open for business the whole time.

I was amazed, dazzled, bamboozled, absolutely flummoxed by what that store looked like. Wal-Mart is known for its predictable layout. Every Wal-Mart Super Store is laid out the same way. Every non-Super Store is laid out the same way. I wandered around in that store, the same one I have gone into on occasion over the past two years and couldn’t quite figure out where most things were. The entire protein bar (I love my chocolate mint Balance bars)/diet supplement section was gone. Most of the clothing racks were inaccessible. I couldn’t even get to the craft and sewing section at the back of the store because of all the crates and forklifts and wide-leather-belt wearing workers.

I overheard a manager telling one employee to pass an overloaded carriage along to her sister and to get the shelving done quickly. Two sisters working the graveyard shift at the same Wal-Mart? One employee was telling another about her grandmother’s DNR request and the impact that has had on their family. In a moment of crude humor, a man who worked there propositioned these last two women in a rather oddly expressed appeal that they help him “relieve a lot of tension.” They burst out laughing and said he’d made their night.

I finally found the file folder I was looking for in the midst of the mayhem, picked up some razors, and wound my way back through the maze of reconstruction equipment to the only open cash register. In front of me in line were two Wal-Mart employees who were shopping before heading home for the night – well, for the day – since they were just finishing their shift. Then there were three men who were obviously part of a paint crew. One had a single bar of Irish spring soap and a bottle of shampoo. The second had three large bottles of pineapple soda, and the third was the extra man on the paint crew, but he wasn’t buying anything. And then there was me: snobby, uptight, full-time mom, out for an early morning adventure to buy some accessory to get her over-priced, under-used art supplies a little better organized. It was a world unto itself, and I felt like an alien on the planet of Wal-Mart.

I have spent some time today wondering if I should rethink my position about Wal-Mart. After all, it meets the needs of countless people whose jobs, families, and friends depend on its existence. That store meets the needs of people whose budgets are tight, whose tastes are simple, and whose only goal is to survive until the next paycheck. That store also meets the needs of people like me who want a place to wander into and through in search of bargains that Target, Michael’s, the local mall, and the internet cannot yet offer me. For me, Wal-Mart is one option in dozens; for many, it is the only choice.

But before I can give my final answer, I need to find answers to questions like why there is so much white bread on the shelves there when most Americans are in desperate need of high fiber breads. Why all the Little Debbies cakes and so few healthy snack choices? Who needs another pair of polyester pants when cotton is better for the body and the environment? Will the people who make those inexpensive items in the aforementioned faraway places and the people who sell those items right here in the good old US of A ever be able to afford the very items they sell? I’m still shaking my head over the passage in Nickel and Dimed when the author realized that, because she was only earning $7 an hour there, she couldn’t afford to buy any of the shirts she was organizing on the clearance rack there. Understandably, food was far more important to her than new clothes.

I wound my way back home just after 6:45. I organized my stickers, scrapbooking papers, and magazine clippings; I really like my new file holder. And I have decided that on April 16th or so, I'm going to go see what the new Wal-Mart looks like.

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