It’s odd that a retail store is so divisive. Walmart — the king of big box stores — can be found in just about every community across the country. But despite how ubiquitous it is in the United States, Walmart somehow manages to be a divergent brand that people seem to either love or hate. And that’s grown to be something of a cultural phenomenon, in many ways, as well.
Personally, I’ve grown impartial to Walmart. I don’t shop there, mostly because it’s far away from where I live. But I also know there are some pretty rotten business practices the company utilizes. On top of that, I remember when I used to frequent the store in years past, eventually getting fed up with it. But it was hard to remember why, exactly, I had become so turned off to the brand.
So I decided to make a visit to a nearby store. And I was reminded as to why I hadn’t gone in so long. I’ll detail my most recent visit to a Walmart store in Bellevue, Washington. Then, we’ll discuss the more philosophical problems many people have with the company.
As for my visit, it started off mostly as expected. A glance at the image below pretty much says it all.
Arrival: The Walmart parking lot
As soon as I pulled up and thought I had found a parking spot, I was met with a discarded scooter taking up space. This wasn’t isolated. There were probably half a dozen parking spots that contained nothing but shopping carts. Evidently, pushing them to the corral was too much of a hassle. Not only that, but there were several unattended children using the corral as a jungle gym.
But the trip was bound to get more interesting.
First, though, let’s take a step back and look at where Walmart stores are generally located. In my case, I had to make a 10-mile trip to the Seattle suburb of Bellevue to find the nearest store. And it was a generic store, not a Supercenter or Neighborhood Market. Seattle, like a handful of other big cities, has no Walmart presence within the city limits. There are plenty of reasons for that — hostile neighbors, higher minimum wages, a general lack of available space, etc. — but it makes going to Walmart even more of a chore for some people than it would be otherwise. This might also be one of the driving factors of the “cultural” divide we discussed earlier.
After making my way to Bellevue and finding a parking space, I entered the store.
Upon entering the store, I found two carts in the corral, both of which were swept up by other customers. No other carts were to be found. Well, I did see some, but they were all over the parking lot, and I didn’t see anyone out there collecting them. Also, I didn’t see any baskets or alternatives. There was one cart near the entrance, but it was filled with about 50 jars of Best Foods mayonnaise on sale for $5. I carried on cartless.
I did find the carts, eventually. They were everywhere — everywhere except where I would expect to find them.
The store was understaffed
One thing stood out to me immediately was the store was understaffed. There were employees around of course. But there were long lines at both the return desk and in the return area. As I meandered through the store, I found nobody working behind the counter in the electronics or outdoors section. I saw a couple of people who needed help give up and leave.
When a store’s understaffed, do you know what forms? Crowds. Oh, the crowds.
I’ve definitely been in a Walmart when the place was packed. But when I was there on a sunny Monday evening in July the place was dead. There were people shopping, of course, but it was nothing compared to some of my past experiences. In fact, the only real crowds to be found were the ones that seemed to be lining up at the service counter and checkout stand — both of which only had one employee present.
Next we look at the composition of the Walmart crowds.
The people of Walmart
You might have seen the website, People of Walmart. It can be an interesting glimpse at America, to be sure, but it’s also one of those things that keep the cultural fight around the company alive. And if you’re in the right place, yes, you’re bound to see some interesting characters. I sure have. But on this trip? People were mostly quiet, respectful, and minding their own business — with the exception of some kids running around unattended and one man who passed me several times singing about “cocks.” I later realized he was looking for badminton gear and needed new shuttlecocks.
One other thing that stood out to me? The store itself was far from clean and inviting.
The store was filthy
Although I can’t hammer the company too hard for this (every store isn’t going to be in the same condition, after all) the location I visited was in dire need of some custodial work. There were broken eggs on the floor. What appeared to be vomit — though I hope it was something else — was spattered on some boxes in an aisle. And I saw melting ice cream, overflowing garbage cans, and a generally filthy atmosphere.
The good news? I did find the carts.
About those carts
Carts were everywhere. It was hard to tell whether they were being actively used as sales bins or whether people were just leaving them all over the store. I suspect it was a bit of both. Seriously, every other aisle you turned down, there would be one or two discarded shopping carts simply taking up space. No one was around. Yet, these shopping carts were everywhere — everywhere, that is, except where they needed to be.
But it wasn’t just the shopping carts littering the aisles.
Merchandise littered the aisles
It was merchandise, as well. I mentioned some shopping carts were being used as sales bins, including one full of mayonnaise near the front entrance. Well, there were also pallets of goods strewn across the store, often in the middle of walkways, making it difficult to navigate the store. Some of it was people pulling things off of shelves and leaving them here and there. But what stood out to me was the store seemed to be too small for all of its merchandise, so management had to get creative.
Now, I mentioned melting ice cream. That was just one of a couple unexpected surprises.
A few surprises
I also encountered a few surprises. While inspecting a clearance shelf in the grocery section, for example, I picked up a box to look at the item that was underneath it. The box, as it turned out, was filled with ice cream sandwiches that were melting and seeping through the cardboard. Wasn’t anticipating that.
I also picked up a loaf of bread to discover a baby’s bib, which had been discarded underneath. I’m not sure how it ended up there or whether there was anything particularly icky about it. But again, it’s not something I want to see when I’m looking at food.
Something else you don’t want to see? One single, serpentine line at the checkout area.
Did I mention the place was understaffed?
You’ve seen it in action. Somehow, despite there being 20 checkout lines, only one is open. And everyone in the store, it seems, decided to leave at the same time. So we’re back at an issue we identified earlier: The place is understaffed. The single cashier was doing her best, but it was clear people were angry. That’s not the cashier’s fault, of course. The store needed more employees on hand, and if I were a betting man, I’d assume they wanted to try and get by with as few people on the clock as possible.
Further adventures awaited me back in the parking lot, little did I know.
The party in the parking lot
Walmart has a pretty cool policy. It lets people with RVs or campers park overnight at certain stores — sort of like an urban campground. I’m not sure whether the store I visited was one of them, but there were a number of RVs and campers present. And as I tried to leave, some of those urban campers tried to make small talk and ask for gas money. It wasn’t that big of a deal, but it’s not something you really anticipate when you’re running to a big box store.
With my trip concluded, I was reminded as to why I generally avoid going to Walmart. Primarily, I dodge it because it’s out of my way. But the experience of shopping there isn’t very pleasant.
On top of that, there are some philosophical issues many people have with the company, which we’ll break down next.
1. Employee treatment
If there’s one company that always seems to be under fire for treating its employees poorly, it’s Walmart. For years, the company has been the target of activists fighting for higher wages. But that’s just part of it. It also does what it can to avoid paying overtime, giving benefits, and a number of other things. Again, this is just what businesses do in general — try to save money to increase profits. But it rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
There’s also plenty of anti-union activity that makes people angry.
2. Anti-labor activities
The primary way in which workers can collectively fight for better wages and more hospitable work arrangements is by forming a union. This is something Walmart has fought tooth and nail for decades and has even shut down entire stores when a whiff of unionization was detected. The company has spied on people, hired private investigators to stop unionization, and used coercive techniques to indoctrinate its workers against unions.
Finally, there’s the lost sense of community a new Walmart store generally fosters in some towns that poison people against the brand.
3. Anti-competitive practices
Walmart has taken an enormous amount of heat in the past for being anti-competitive. You know the story. Walmart moves into some town, everyone starts shopping there, and all the other businesses nearby go belly up. But can we really blame Walmart? The customers are making the choice to go there, after all. And any other business would follow the same blueprint if they could.
It seems, though, the company might have finally met its match in a certain e-commerce giant that, over the past decade, has taken over the retail business and eaten into Walmart’s profits. But that’s a whole other can of worms — something to dig into another day. For now, this latest shopping trip was a reminder as to why Walmart is so reviled in the minds of many.