The Walmart Museum sits on the main square of this Disneyized northwest Arkansas town. On this very spot in 1950, the late Sam Walton opened his first five-and-dime store that became the globe-girding Walmart Corporation.
The museum has a 1950s-era soda fountain, Sam’s old Ford F-150 pickup truck that he used for hunting trips, and charming examples of Walmart’s legendary customer service. One client returned a circular outdoor thermometer because it never told the right time. Another customer sent back an electric pencil sharpener because it didn’t work on ballpoint pens.
They got their money back, no questions asked.
Walmart’s problem, of course, is that its vast, $485 billion empire increasingly resembles a fusty museum. There are many businesses they could be compared to — Kodak, Blockbuster, or any major newspaper conglomerate — but their plight reminds me most of the bookseller Barnes & Noble. Thirty years ago, everyone hated B&N for putting hundreds of local bookstores out of business, with their ugly big-box book warehouses. Then online retailer Amazon appeared on the scene and put almost every local bookstore out of business.
Who has time to hate Barnes & Noble any more? On the rare occasion when I stumble into a B&N, I feel as if I’m in a magic place, like a small-town movie theater or a medical practice that takes patients’ interests first.
Hating Walmart used to be a blood sport, especially in the more liberal Northeastern ZIP codes. Walmart hollowed out downtowns all over America, they were antilabor, their giga-box stores despoiled the environment, etc. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is still inveighing against Walmart. “I don’t think Walmart — the company, the stores — belong in New York,” he says.
Inconveniently for the mayor, the New York Post recently cited a study, by Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers chairman Jason Furman, that estimates a Walmart drives down family spending by $2,300 a year. Let’s face it, Bill de Blasio is a lefty fossil. In just a couple of years, de Blasio will be begging Walmart, or any retailer, to open up discount stores in one of the five boroughs. Brick-and-mortar retail is going the way of the derby hat.
Maybe Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will come to de Blasio’s aid. But I doubt it. That’s because Amazon is too busy putting Walmart and its ilk out of business. I conducted my own experiment, choosing some random shopping items to price-compare at the massive Walmart supercenter here: a TravelPro suitcase, a wristwatch, my favorite Pilot V5 pen, and some of-the-moment sports shoes.
For starters, Walmart doesn’t sell TravelPro luggage, even though a JetBlue flight attendant told me to buy nothing else. They don’t sell Nike or Adidas sports shoes, so that leaves the pens — Amazon beats Walmart on price — and the Casio water-resistant watch, which Walmart sells for $10 less than Amazon.
Final score: Amazon 3, Walmart 1.
Walmart has plenty of great deals — tennis balls for $1.52! — plus a supermarket thrown in. But with my pirated (sorry, borrowed) Prime account, Amazon delivers to my door, quickly, and lets me watch the comedy series “Catastrophe” while I wait. Amazon recently sold me a Fire tablet for peanuts, and allows me read The Washington Post, also for free.
There is a raging war to feed our consumption addiction, and right now Amazon is winning.
Amazon will soon surpass Macy’s as the country’s largest apparel seller; in twenty-three short years it has built a $433 billion market capitalization nearly twice as large as Walmart’s. Maybe they should build a museum.
Alex Beam’s column runs regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.