With the Christmas season upon us, it’s hard not to get caught up in thinking about wants and needs. It’s also hard not to think of shopping, since the commercial aspect of the holiday has long eclipsed the spiritual significance for many people. Sometimes figuring it all out gets hard when the “wants” start to present themselves as “needs.” I sometimes find it easier to make a list of what I don’t need. For example, even though Christmas shopping can get rather costly, I don’t need to shop at Wal-Mart, even if it now is conveniently located in Squamish.
Sam Walton’s heirs don’t need my money. Nor do they need yours. For that matter, as the wealthiest family in the U.S., they don’t need any more money at all. Walton who started his post-army career in 1945 with a variety store franchise spun that five and dime in rural Arkansas into the biggest retail chain in North America, with close to 4,000 stores, extending from one end of the continent to the other. Today, Wal-Mart announced plans to move into India.
I don’t need to shop at Wal-Mart because Sam’s monument to North American consumerism doesn’t care what I need — a world where fairness is a desirable value. Sure cheap, diverse and plentiful goods have always been attractive. But once the real cost of those goods is considered, they aren’t very attractive.
The reason Wal-Mart can offer everything cheaper is the extreme volume of products it moves coupled with the fact the company saves on the manufacturing and retailing of its products. The company has positioned itself as a benevolent retailer, choosing to pass the savings onto the consumer instead of lining its corporate coffers. In reality, Wal-Mart’s profits are quite substantial thanks to a business model that has the retailer only paying for product once it has been sold to the consumer and by having manufacturing occurring in countries legendary for human rights abuses.
For example, the typical wage of a seamstress in one of Wal-Mart’s suppliers in Bangladesh is between 9¢ and 20¢ an hour, for a 12-and-a-half hour day that includes such indignities as monitored bathroom breaks and supervision that amounts to being screamed at to work faster. While wages in Bangladesh are low, the sweatshops that Wal-Mart contracts with have a reputation for ignoring the labour code and paying wages up to 40 per cent lower that the accepted minimum. So why do people continue to work in these factories? They like to eat.
Across the border, the mass retailer employs 1.2 million Americans. The majority of those exist in a type of economic limbo where they make too much to qualify for medical aid at jobs where there is no health insurance. Why do these people choose to work at Wal-Mart? Because they like to eat — and can often do so augmented by food stamps despite full-time employment.
While it may be easy to ignore the impact Wal-Mart has on a Bangladeshi family, or even a family slightly south of the 49 th parallel, let’s consider the impact it can have closer to home.
Wal-Mart hits small retailers where it counts, at the till. The result for these small, independent shops is, at best, staff reductions; at worst, bankruptcy.
We managed to have perfectly great Christmases long before that seductive little happy face with its promises of price rollbacks bounced into the corridor. Clearly, we don’t need to spend time ripping down the highway spewing environment-choking carbon emissions to ensure there are packages under the tree.
What we need are pharmacies that can quickly fill a prescription when our kids are sick. We need grocery stores close enough that we can make it home before the ice cream melts. We need hardware stores that are close enough that the leaking faucet won’t do too much damage before we return with the plumbing tape. We need gift stores that sell items that reflect our local culture. We need sporting good stores owned and staffed by people who take advantage of the recreational opportunities our environment offers. We need stores that sell art supplies, books and craft materials to fill our leisure time and fuel our souls.
We need to support local businesses in this make or break month for retail. A dollar spent locally ricochets seven times in the community. Shopping local, it’s the gift the keeps on giving.