Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Big Box Dilemma

Yep, The Big Box. You know what I mean, Wal-Mart, the store that so many people love to hate. It has become the symbol of the homogenization of American culture. 25 years ago it was McDonald's, before that? I really can't say because I only really began paying attention somewhere in my late teens. Howard Johnson's maybe? It really doesn't matter, I guess, the point is that sometimes the things that make our lives easier or more convenient, are the same things that we resent for taking away the individuality of the landscape.

It seems that no matter where we go in America these days there is a Wal-Mart, and more and more of them are billed as "Supercenters." But let's be real, just because you can buy food and drugs and clothes in the same store doesn't really make it a supercenter, because you can do the same at most Walgreens, Kenny Drugs, Rite-Aids and even grocery stores. The Marketing department of the Wal-Mart Company knows that by billing the store as a supercenter, it gets them more community support,( if they have any to start with, there is a serious backlash going on with Walmart) so even though it may not be a full supercenter they will still call it such. I live where I can drive to three different Wal-Mart "supercenters" in less than an hour. The smallest one is in my own hometown. It has all the bells and whistles to get the label, but the bells are much smaller, and the whistles are more like tweeters. Each one offers all the same services, but the population that each caters to is different so the stock reflects this. So does the size. The one in the college town is the biggest store I have been in to date. It is the newest incarnation in the same town, they pretty much outgrew the first one that was built 15 years ago. Now the old building sits empty waiting for a new tenant or someone to doze it over and build something new. This also is a common occurance when it comes to this megalithic retailer.

The dilemma is this, do you go to Wal-mart with it's low prices and continued market dominance, or do you patronize the little stores where you know the owners and have been shopping for years? Wal-Mart has what you need, and in the style you want and at a low price. The little store knows exaclty what you want, but doesn't have the style in stock, ( but can have it in a day or two) and the price is a couple dollars more. What do you do? America is a country that has no use for anything less than instant gratification, Wal-Mart wins, today. What happens tomorrow? Do you even bother looking at the little store? Maybe you do, maybe you don't. The more times you choose Wal-Mart the more you hurt the little store, and the more likely it is that they will go out of business. When they go out of business, the irony is that they will be shopping at Wal-Mart, because the low prices will be all that they can afford!

Now don't get me wrong, I am not a Wal-Mart basher in general. I shop there, for the exact reasons that I have specified above. Low prices and selection. When you have a company that can buy an entire production run of a product, you know they will have the lowest price on a product. In fact, they can pretty much control the market price on most things. They can undercut any local competitor and drive them out of business. Then they hire at least a portion of that competitors labor force to staff their ever bigger stores. Meanwhile they buy cheaper products made in foriegn factories, meaning that Unemployed Americans will continue to shop for the lowest prices thereby making them the winners again. How's that for dominating the market?

I love to travel and road trips are one of my favorite things to do. Generally due to time constraints I usually travel by Interstate Highway. It's a great way to get from city to city and to cover ground fast. Contrary to the popular belief when they were built, they really do provide some wondeful views and vistas. They cut through some of the most beautiful places in the country, and some of the most desolate as well. Anyone who has ever followed I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas knows that. Who hasn't stopped at the Mad Greeks in Baker, CA just because it is the biggest piece of civilization between them? When you drive through most suburbs these days, you can pretty much count on seeing the same string of franchise eateries, motels, stores, muffler shops, and auto parts stores. Whether you drive through Atlantic City, New Jersey, Cleveland, Ohio, Wichita, Kansas, Durango, Colorado, Flagstaff, Arizona , or any other city you can think of, you will find the line up of strip malls somewhere along the road into town. Sooner or later you will spot a Ken-tac-hut, next door to a Monro Muffler, across the street from an Applebee's that is across the parking lot from the IHOP. Down near the exit will be the Super 8 motel, next door to the Motel 6, the Red Roof Inn and the Holiday Inn Express. Of all that I have mentioned above only one is a single location, one-of-a-kind place, The Mad Greek's in Baker, CA. If you have ever been there you know what I am talking about. If you haven't I highly recommend it. When you get to these parts of any city, you literally could be in any city in the USA. Sure, if you are west of the Mississippi river you are much more liklely to find a Carl's Jr. or a Jack in The Box than a Hardee's, or a Sonic, but still and all, it is a pretty homogenous thing.

There is the benefit of knowing that you will always get the same product by the same name wherever you go in the country, but at the same time where is the adventure of the journey? What is the use of leaving home if you will only continue to visit the same places expecting the same services and products wherever you go? Isn't the point of traveling to be able to try new things and to have new experiences? To me, it is useless to travel if I will have the same thing in Utah and Colorado, and Kansas and Memphis and I can have in Rochester and Buffalo. When I am in Kansas City I want KC Barbecue, I'm going to Jack Stacks, when I am in Chicago I want Deep Dish Pizza. When I am in New Orleans I want crawdads and Jambalaya, I'm gonna find the place where the locals go for them. When I am in Texas, I want some Texas Beef, slow cooked over a mesquite flame. If I am in Maine I am gonna have Lobster at every meal, and shrimp and maybe even clams! But sad to say, when I need a new pair of pants, in Billings, Montana?

Yeah I'm going to look for a Wal-Mart. I can't help it, I know they will have what I want and in the size I need. I promise I won't buy a new pair of cowboy boots there or a hat, but for the pants and shirt, yeah I'm going there.

Pluses and minuses of everything. There is a benefit to knowing what you are gonna get sometimes, but other times there is a need for the adventure, and when you have a chance to have an adventure, don't waste it on a Big Box, adventure-ize yourself and maybe learn something about your own tastes. You never know when you will find something new that you really like.

1 comment:

Serenity said...

it's not a dilemma. it's a must do! everyone must and should shop at Wal-Mart. LONG LIVE WAL-MART!!!
so says WalMartians worldwild