I don’t take shopping at Walmart lightly. A 200,000-square-foot labyrinth like the supercenter in my hometown of Plymouth is no place for a casual browser. One wrong turn and you can end up face to face with 7mm bullets instead of 60-inch TVs. That’s why I go armed with a plan that would do a Navy SEAL proud. I know what I’m after, where it’s located, and how to pull off a quick exit.
Lately, I’ve been making a beeline for the cereal aisle to fill my cart with Kashi Golean Crunch. It’s sweet and nutritious — essentially a perfect food. On my last Walmart visit, Crunch was selling for $2.84, $1.45 less than at the nearby Stop & Shop. That’s $75.40 in yearly savings if I eat a boxful a week. It’s money I can put in the bank, apply to bills, spend at a downtown Plymouth shop owned by mom and pop, or hand over to another massive corporation I frequent, like Target.
Walmart opponents would say I should feel guilty about getting this deal. The city of Portland, Oregon, recently said it was taking a moral stand by divesting all of its roughly $36 million in Walmart investments. Critics of the company reason that as a customer I’m abetting an outfit that denies “living wages,” crushes unionizing efforts, bullies vendors, hollows out the cores of small communities, and — who knows? — could be secretly building a giant spacecraft to whisk away top executives when Earth explodes.
There are some truths beneath the hyperbole. The Waltons of Arkansas didn’t become the world’s richest family through benevolence. By treating cost-cutting like a religion and shrewdly expanding, they built a chain whose annual sales of $473 billion are about the same size as the gross domestic product of Argentina.
Any discussion of where the nation’s economy is pointed must include Walmart. About 140 million people shop at one of 4,000-plus US stores every week. For many, it’s the only affordable and convenient option. Those consumers account for a large chunk of Walmart’s customer base. Some are on Walmart payrolls. They remain bruised by the recession, running households on extra-lean budgets, still cautious even about Walmart-level spending. Their frugality partly accounts for the company’s recent disappointing earnings.
Are these folks supposed to shop somewhere with higher prices to make a political point? No, says Al Norman of Sprawl-Busters.com, who for decades has railed against Walmart with the fervor of an exorcist on overtime.
But the Greenfield resident believes people like me, bull’s-eye middle class, should choose Stop & Shop over Walmart for cereal, if only because the grocery store accepts a union. “Workers there at least have a shot at getting a better wage and benefits package than at the company that tries to keep its workers powerless,” Norman says.
Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg, who must suffer recurring Al Norman nightmares, says the chain gets a bad rap on compensation. “You can’t hire people if you’re paying below the market rate,” he says. Lundberg cited a stack of figures to boost his case. Some surprised me. For instance, Walmart employs more than 12,000 associates in Massachusetts, and the majority of nonsalaried ones are full time, earning an average hourly wage of $13.78. That’s significantly above both the state’s current $8 minimum and a proposed increase to $10.50 in 2016. They also receive up to a 6 percent 401(k) match and nearly 80 percent company-funded health insurance. Not quite Nantucket dough, but not at the bottom of the economic barrel, either.
I know the Walmart debate is more complex than paychecks and benefits. One overarching issue is the use of cheap foreign labor, which helps make possible those “always low prices.” Outsourcing is central to a business model that has, as Norman puts it, “turned us from a nation of makers to a nation of baggers.”
That’s one reason why Portland is dumping its Walmart investments. A policy there calls for officials to scrutinize holdings that could be associated with “health and environmental concerns, abusive labor practices, and corrupt corporate ethic and governance.” (Is anything left after that checklist?)
In Boston, former mayor Tom Menino decided on behalf of all city residents that Walmart should be kept at bay. He feared it would pinch smaller merchants, perhaps by forcing them to stop gouging customers.
Others, including President Obama, have chosen to deal with Walmart by engaging. In May, he stood in a California Walmart to praise the retailer’s ambitious solar energy initiative. Obama took heat from some quarters, but it’s pragmatic to collaborate with the company, even if you categorize it with North Korea.
You may disagree and, like Norman, prefer to purchase cereal at a neighborhood food co-op. Or move to Portland. You don’t have to clip coupons and scour clearance bins. Because of hard work and good fortune, you have the means to spend more on basic goods than is necessary.
I’m just trying to figure out how that benefits people who don’t have that kind of money.
Number of stores operated by Walmart in Massachusetts
Number of associates employed in them
Average wage of full-time hourly associatesMark Pothier is the Globe’s business editor. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @markpothier.