We did it. We conducted our experimental shopping trip to our town’s brand-new Walmart Super Center, and we have obviously lived to tell the tale. We actually did it in two stages: early evening with The Boys to get their unique perspective on things; then later that night, just The Wife and I, when we could quietly form our own opinions. Let me say right up front that I feel sorry for anyone who has to shop regularly in a place like this. They are truly getting the short end of the stick.
What was it that first set me at ill-ease in the place? Was it the bare concrete floor? The sallow, dim fluorescent lighting? The eerie silence due to a lack of background music? Any one of those might have been enough, but that trifecta of despair worked its evil magic to full effect on me. I was even more irritable and distracted than usual, and I longed for the comfort of more familiar surroundings. But the silence was not complete, not by a long shot: there were video screens here and there playing ads.
Loudly. In loops.
Over. And. Over. Again.
The overall effect was of a dystopian, Orwellian regime.
What fun it must be to work here, I thought.
We gamely worked our way down the aisles and through our list, trying in vain to find products that had a discernible origin in our own region. Almost everything was either a national brand, hailing from one of the massive corporations which supplies so much of our nation’s food, or Walmart’s own “Great Value” house brand, likely from one of those same corporations. Of course, there was no obvious way to find out where these products came from. Even the produce was from points unknown. We have grown accustomed in other stores to finding local or regional products prominently displayed, with their place of origin highlighted. Here, the only discernibly local produce was the small, bagged apples. Fair enough, but they pale in comparison to the loose, organic beauties we’d bought at The Co-Op just the week before for the same price.
The preponderance of national brands almost masked the lack of variety on the shelves. I had expected to be overwhelmed with an array of options in every department, but the opposite turned out to be true. We had to make a few on-the-fly adjustments to our purchasing because we simply didn’t find what we were looking for. This was true across all departments as well-meat, dairy, frozen, you name it-a discouragingly bland, monolithic selection of products.
There were no whole roasting chickens, no frozen ravioli, very little coffee to choose from, and a mere two brands of milk-one from Texas, one from Arkansas. I was reminded more of a corner convenience store, blown up to epic proportions, than a proper supermarket; there was an ample supply of 35-cent burritos…
but no bulk food section. Whether as a result or a cause of this bland uniformity, we realized that if we had somehow woken up inside this store, there would be no way to tell from the inside where in the world, or indeed on what world, we were. There was no sense of “place” beyond the grasp of the corporation-no local flavor, no regional identity. even the Redbox DVD kiosks were Walmart blue.
So much for aesthetics and selection. That’s not what Walmart’s about though, is it? It’s all about price, right? “Save money, live better” and all that? Not so fast. We noticed as we shopped that some prices we saw were noticeably higher than what we were used to paying, and that had an impact on some of our selections. Further research shows more clearly that, while being less expensive on a few large items, Walmart’s price was higher on many more items, and was more expensive overall. Also of interest is a qualitative difference in some of the products. Where there is a noticeable difference in quality, the product from Walmart comes up short in the comparison every time. Now, one could argue that an inferior product at a lower price is a reasonable expectation. But how about paying the same money, as with the apples; or paying even more, as with the yogurt; for something that’s not as good? That’s neither saving money nor living better.
The Safeway across the street is a stark contrast. Even though Safeway is the nation’s third-largest grocery retailer, each store retains a sense of place and a connection to its neighborhood. Murals of local scenes tie the store visually to its region; music and lighting are pleasant but not distracting; and locally-sourced products are easy to find. “Our” store boasts a large, painted logo of the local university on the floor at the entry; bunches of produce, prominently marked with state and regional designations; an active bakery turning out fresh bread, bagels, donuts, and more; tins of locally-made Cougar Gold cheese ready to roll out the door; and store-brand dairy products made from milk produced within the state. While it is a bit spendy in places, the selection is overwhelming, and overall the experience of shopping there is very close to pleasant.
On our late shopping trip, we moseyed about the rest of the store, gazing in dismayed wonder at the surreal banality of modern mass commercialism. From all that we saw, two vignettes remain at the forefront of memory. First is the magazine display. While the Cosmopolitan at the checkout was concealed within a plastic sleeve, the main magazine layout was thus:
Teen (Miley and Beiber dominate)
Fighting (WWF, MMA, etc.)
Guns (down low, at toddler grab level)
then, the books:
Christian romance (yes, there is such a thing)
the overall effect is remarkable. I wish I could have gotten a picture of it, but we felt that we were being watched. After all:
The second incident occurred over in the Sporting Goods section, where the shotguns and rifles were on sale. There on the counter was a video monitor, showing a video of a lovely pastoral scene-Canada geese flying in low over a field, honking to one another, and then-BLAM! BLAM! Two of them drop from the sky, shot by the hunters who were narrating the video. Gulp. Now, I have nothing against hunting per se. However, I choose not to participate in the activity; nor do I care to watch it while I am grocery shopping. Just across the aisle was an end-cap display of snack crackers, perhaps a lovely accompaniment to goose-liver pate? I don’t know. I’m struggling to understand what this says about American culture at this time, when stores sell pellet guns in blister pack and show animal snuff films on a loop. I’m also glad I don’t have to shop here anymore.