I saw a young woman I know walking out of Wal-Mart this evening. I saw her because I was walking into the store, so I hope she didn't notice me. For years now, I've been encouraging everyone who will listen to refrain from contributing to Wal-Mart's bottom line, since I believe that it is a toxic corporation. Just about any way you slice it, Wal-Mart is bad news: their business practices are bad for communities, bad for competition, bad for workers, bad for the people of the Third World, and bad for the soul!
So why was I shopping at a store I find so loathsome? Well, having broken the extension cord for my car's block heater, I needed a replacement tonight -- it's damn cold in Winnipeg today -- and Wal-Mart was still open after the nearby mall had closed, so I sucked it up and went there. And in the interests of full disclosure, I also bought some hi-liters from the stationery department, since I discovered that the store carried my preferred brand, which I've been unable to find elsewhere for several months now.
While I choose to minimize my shopping at Wal-Mart -- I spent a total of $67 there last year, including sales taxes! -- I long ago decided I wouldn't punish myself in order to avoid the store. So here are my personal ground rules for shopping at the store that Sam built: (1) I will never enter a Wal-Mart store for the sole purpose of saving money, no matter how much I may have to pay for the same product elsewhere. (2) I will go there to purchase something I cannot reasonably acquire from another store, provided I've convinced myself I really need that specific item. (3) I will shop there to get something I need with some urgency, when time is of the essence and other stores are closed. And (4) should I happen to be passing a Wal-Mart store knowing that I need to make a minor purchase, I may stop in if I can convince myself that driving somewhere else would unnecessarily increase my carbon footprint. Frankly, these four personal rules don't leave much room for lavish spending!
So what about my young friend, who I saw leaving the store? Do I judge her negatively for shopping there? Not at all. She's a single mother who needs to make her money stretch as far as possible, so Wal-Mart may well offer her choices she might not otherwise enjoy. While I think that a careful economic analysis would show that this company saves no one a dime in the long run, in the shorter term some people like my young friend may benefit. But I can easily afford to shop elsewhere, so I do. Nor do I look down on the good people who work for Wal-Mart, since they work hard and should not be held responsible for the policies and practices of their employer.
On the other hand, I am troubled by people with privileged incomes who make a habit of shopping at Wal-Mart. I sometimes think union cards should include magnetic chips that set off the store's electronic security devices when a union member walks through the front door. And I will continue to be embarrassed on those very rare occasions, never more than once or twice in a year, when necessity leads me to enter a Wal-Mart store. Simply put, it matters where we shop because, in the end, we make our values real through our economic choices. And values should always trump value, at least when it comes to consumer goods.