Wal-Mart is a huge corporation. They usually pay minimum wage with few benefits, they move into small towns and crush local businesses, they advocate and practice censorship, and they're responsible for a scary portion of retail sales in the United States. It's easy to hate Wal-Mart.

But I don't. In fact, I've been a regular Wal-Mart customer for over four years. They're not perfect, but I'm glad they're around.

Labor practices

I'm sure that Wal-Mart offers minimum wage with few or no benefits to the great majority of their employees, and in most areas, this income level is near or below poverty. But most of these employees are part-time workers, and their jobs aren't very demanding. Most retail jobs are easy, mindless positions requiring no skills beyond common sense (and even that's optional). It's difficult to justify even $5 per hour for the work performed by most retail employees. I'm not saying this lightly - I used to be one. I've seen both sides of this. The reality of retail is simply sad.

Even if the jobs were difficult, and the workers really deserved more than $6-8 per hour for the work they performed, I still wouldn't fault Wal-Mart for this. The reality is that every huge retail corporation employs as many part-time people as possible at low wages with no benefits. Wal-Mart gets a lot of attention for it because they're the largest retail chain in the world by a large margin, but they're no worse than Staples or Best Buy. Corporate executives must reduce costs wherever possible, or they get fired by their shareholders. If Best Buy can pay a new high-school kid $6 per hour and get better quality work than the mediocre 45-year-old guy who has worked there for 4 years and has worked his way up to $9 per hour, they'll fire the old guy and bring in the high-school kid, and I can't fault them for that. If your job can be done by almost anyone, with very little training or education, you shouldn't be surprised at the lack of job security.

Local economies

Wal-Mart is frequently criticized for moving into small towns and driving local stores out of business. This is a legitimate concern, accurately reflected by reality. But what does this actually do? The number of jobs isn't significantly different - Wal-Mart locations must employ tons of people. Not only are they large, complex stores, but they're often kept open 24 hours per day. The loss of "Mom-and-Pop" stores isn't significant to the job market either - Mom and Pop usually don't have a lot of additional employees except maybe Pop Jr. The same workforce is still needed overall, since the demand for retail services hasn't changed. People have just changed the store in which they shop.

So far, we're breaking even. But I'll really be outrageous on this one. I'll argue that Wal-Mart actually helps local economies.

Suppose you buy your groceries at Giant Eagle or any other ridiculously-overpriced grocery store, and you get your cosmetics at CVS or any other ridiculously-overpriced drugstore, for a total of about $200 per month. Wal-Mart then opens a nearby store. Instead of CVS and Giant Eagle, you do all of your shopping at Wal-Mart and spend only $150 per month. (Assuming you purchased the same items, you'd probably save significantly more, but I'll be conservative.) You're saving $50 per month. Where does it go?

You can put it into savings, where it can collect interest and work toward a larger investment, improving the future economy and your quality of life. You could spend it on additional items that you wouldn't have otherwise purchased, improving the current economy and your quality of life. (Unless you use it to purchase an LG computer monitor.) Or you could buy big sandwiches for 10 homeless people, improving the current economy and their quality of life. Regardless of how you spend (or don't spend) your extra $50, the economy and someone's life will probably improve somehow.

Consider the effect this would have if everyone in an entire town was suddenly saving $50 per month, especially in a small town with lower average cost-of-living and lower average salaries than most cities. After all, Wal-Mart is most severely criticized for moving into small towns. And I'm just one person. Imagine the effect on a large family if their grocery expenses were cut by 25-50%, especially if they didn't make much money.


Wal-Mart advocates and practices censorship, most notably in the music they sell. If an album contains offensive language (s/p/f/c/cs/mf/t, etc.) or content, Wal-Mart will only carry a "clean" version, in which the artist has conveniently silenced or changed any "bad words", so that innocent children will have absolutely no idea what was originally said and will therefore remain young and pure forever.

But I can't really fault them for this. Wal-Mart is not providing a public service. They're a privately-owned business, and they can choose not to sell whatever they want. If I operated a retail store, I'd refuse to sell anything from offensive brands such as Monster Cable.

Retail dominance

While the exact number will vary by source, nobody refutes Wal-Mart's intimidating dominance of all retail sales. Any product that can be sold at retail must be sold at Wal-Mart to reach a large customer base.

This can have some negative effects. Monopolies are rarely beneficial to anyone except their owners. But Wal-Mart doesn't have a monopoly yet, and as long as they reasonably don't, I don't have any problem with their retail power. So far, they've used their power for some good causes.

Computer game retailers tried to convince publishers to reduce the size of game boxes. The old boxes occupied large amounts of shelf space and were mostly empty - very few contained more than a CD jewel case. The video game publishers quietly refused for years, and slowly, a significant percentage of video game sales crept toward Wal-Mart. The critical difference was that, unlike previous attempts from Best Buy and other large electronics retailers, Wal-Mart didn't need to sell video games. Even if 50% of all video games sold in the US were sold there, Wal-Mart's revenues wouldn't increase by more than a few percent. Knowing this, Wal-Mart gave video game publishers an ultimatum: Shrink your boxes to the size we demand, or we'll stop carrying them. Publishers responded immediately, and within months, all new computer games (and any old games still in production) were released in small boxes.

But that was five years ago. What has Wal-Mart done recently?

Without trying very hard, Wal-Mart found themselves selling 25% of the music in the US. A few months ago, they began discussions with record labels to reduce the price of music CDs. Wal-Mart is pushing to sell CDs at only $9.99, instead of the $13-17 charged by everyone now. Their reasoning was simple enough to paraphrase here: "The record industry charges what the market will bear. We have a different philosophy: we charge what items are worth." While nothing has come of this yet, they've definitely won a lot of points for it.

The alternatives

I love to support smaller local businesses when they provide a reasonable alternative to Wal-Mart. But where can I go?

For my groceries, I can choose from Giant Eagle, generic save-a-lot stores, or little hole-in-the-wall grocers. Giant Eagle offers high prices, awful service, low availability, stupid personal-information "discount" cards that simply reduce outrageous prices to a somewhat reasonable level, and incredibly annoying radio commercials. Sorry, that's not going to win me over. Giant Eagle is the only viable grocery source near my apartment, and every time I shop there, I miss Wal-Mart. But generic stores offer even higher prices, even worse service, and mediocre availability. Nope, not good enough. Hole-in-the-wall grocers are the worst - Mom and Pop want $3.50 for a dozen eggs, they have a smaller food selection than most gas stations, and their produce is older than most cars. Sorry, I'd rather go to Wal-Mart.

But a major attraction to Wal-Mart is the all-in-one promise - you can get all of your shopping done here, in one trip, so you can spend your time doing other things. Imagine that this wasn't actually a benefit, and shopping at tons of different stores was a positive thing. I'd have to go to the gas station or mechanic to get a $4 bottle of windshield washer fluid that previously cost me $0.79 at Wal-Mart. Then I'd have to get that $3.50 carton of eggs from Mom and Pop that I previously bought at Wal-Mart for $0.85. Then I'd have to go to Honest Jim's Movie Store and pay $24.99 for that stupid DVD that Wal-Mart has for just $17.88. Then I'd have to pay $10 more at the gas station next time I went to fill up my tank after all of this driving.

Sorry, I'll just go to Wal-Mart.

Rated 4/5


Wal-Mart isn't perfect, and their retail dominance is definitely scary. But they're a far better choice than any of their competitors, and they've used their extreme power for some good causes. I'll shop there whenever it's convenient until I find a better alternative.