Sunday, July 5, 2009

To Boldly Go... where millions have gone before (I went to Walmart)

A Polemic on Crass Consumer Privilege. The last paragraph has two great links that provoked this to varying degrees - so hope you enjoy the journey down the page.

My Folk Festival Chair broke. It's one of those low-down to the ground camping chairs that meet the maximum height requirements for sitting in the crowd at the Winnipeg Folk Festival (seat no higher than 2 feet to allow for visibility of the people behind you). The arm broke - rendering it unfit for Festival use - though it will get duct taped and used around the fire pit at home.

So - 5 days before Folk Festival - I have to find a new chair. You would think it would be easy in the Grand Metropolis and Shopping Paradise that is the Heart of the Continent. Not so easy when some of us are at best "reluctant participants" in the shopping culture. So we made a list of where we had heard other friends had located similar chairs. For the record - we are not Costco members - which is likely where all the most popular chairs are these days.

Went to Zellers - a somewhat Canadian Company and located walking distance from my house. No lawn chairs. Went to SuperStore (also somewhat Canadian) for the first time since 2005 (when we were shopping for the last Retreat). No lawn chairs. Went to Canadian Tire (notice a theme?)- no lawn chairs. Went to Walmart (Born in the USA) for the first time in more years than I can remember - and bought two made in China (sorry!) Folk Fest Acceptable lawn chairs.

And then I took a look around. In the words of Bette Davis in "Beyond the Forest" - what a dump. Unhappy looking staff. Even unhappier looking customers. The stock was a mess - opened packages, disordered shelved, sizes/brands mixed up, stuff shoved anywhere someone felt like it when they realized that they didn't want it anymore. Took a cruise through the women's' clothing area out of curiosity (many of my friends say they get great deals at Walmart on their sartorial choices). Clothes falling off hangers. Merchandise everywhere - sizes mixed up, clothes on the floor. The clerk at the fitting room counter had a mountain of clothes to re-hanger and put away - and she was the only clerk I could see. The socks and underwear section was a disaster - open plastic bags with their contents half pulled out, walked on - but hey - you know what I'm talking about - you see this every time you go to Walmart. It isn't a surprise to you.

it made my Old School Retailer Heart frantic. Now - I know that the stores are understaffed, and the staff are not well compensated, and all of that - I did 25 years in retail - remember? I am not faulting the Good People of Walmart-land.

They are fighting the onslaught of crass consumer privilege. The staff didn't turn the store into a wasteland where shoppers are forced to become mix and match hunter gatherers, foragers for the best deal and the undamaged item, where shoppers act like decadent Roman Emperors, tossing the gnawed rib bones of discarded items over their shoulder to land where they may in the churn of "made in sweatshop" merchandise that migrates from department to department.

I watched people do this - drop stuff, shove stuff onto shelves, leave hangers full of blouses on a rack of pants, knock things off hangers and let them fall - and treat the clerk at the Fitting Room area like she was their own personal slave - shoving an armload of clothes and a tangle of hangers into her face and walking away without a word. And I'm shocked that I'm shocked. I guess I've just been out of the jungle too long. Cue Guns & Roses.

Are people so powerless in their personal lives or places of employment that, at the first opportunity, they treat others with such disrespect? Do we really need to "lord" our power over others in order to improve our self-esteem? or are we treating people the way we are ourselves treated - not the way we want to be treated by others? Why do we act like we are the stars of our own celebrity reality show? Lights! Camera! Action! Someone needs to yell CUT!

I enjoyed my time in retail except for the customers that treated me/my staff members like we were somehow "less than" - that because we were in the service industry that we were "servants" - and there's a whole other soapbox diatribe possible about the concepts of customer service / public service / service industry.

I've had the opportunity in my extraordinarily privileged life to "see how the other half lives" - to have visited and shopped in stores where the rich shop and let me reassure you, faithful reader, that the true mark of classy behavior (as in upper class) is based on how WELL someone treats those who are providing a personal service. While the sample sale frenzy at Bloomingdales is legendary, there is a culture of respect that is part of the exchange in commerce among many in the carriage trade. (what a quaintly antiquated expression - it should be the Manolo trade these days). But I digress.

There is also respect for the merchandise. Every item in every store started as a thought - a creative idea designed to meet a potential need (or a manufactured need in some cases.) "It" is approved, prototyped, manufactured, packaged, crated, and transported (sometimes at great carbon-creating distance) to its intended marketplace. But what is today's mass produced merchandise really worth?

When I know how much a meter of fabric costs at Mitchell Fabrics (Winnipeg's finest family owned fabric store) - plus design, labor, and shipping - how can this pair of shorts be only $5? How much of that is profit for the retailer with their overhead and staffing costs, plus the shipping company, the distributor and the manufacturer? How much did someone get paid to make my $5 pair of shorts? Would I work for that wage? And where can they afford to shop based on what they make?

I'm not a saint - just a conflicted consumer. I try to vote with my dollars - AND I also need what I need to live my life, and sometimes there are limitations on where I can find the thing I'm looking for because of the Consumer Over-culture. I tend to shop in small, independent stores - and rarely make the trip into the big box world of retail because I can't stand it. The stores smell of chemicals - all those cheaply made goods off-gassing their poly-whatever into a contained space. People are rude. The staff are overworked, underpaid, and under appreciated. I make the foray into that world only when I need something I can't find anywhere else. And then I feel awful for days. Body Mind and Spirit.

I hate malls (and I've worked in them). I hate the big box malls especially, because I have to walk outside in the winter to get from store to store to store schlepping my stuff in a winter coat & boots - or drive/be driven across a football field length parking lot to get from one store to the next. Interior malls replaced the town square/central market of our cities by enclosing stores under one roof.

At least in an enclosed mall, you can meet friends, stop for tea, sit and watch the people go by and have a social experience - replacing that central civic meeting place which is now a thing of distant cultural memory and is almost considered an urban legend to current generations. With the big box malls, we've lost even that artificial semblance of "market day" being a socially interactive experience - now its every SUV for itself as people jet from store to store across an acreage that used to be farmland in my lifetime.

So what's to be done? Treat everyone and everything with respect. Say please and thank you. Shop with your dollars supporting your beliefs. Write letters of commendation when deserved - and not just for the "above and beyond" stuff - but for the smaller moments that matter. Own your contribution to the "mess" and do better (such as hanging things up on their hangers when after you have tried them on). Change the economy one necessary purchase at a time, to the best of your ability.

And if you see me at Folk Festival - I'll be the lady in the big black beaten up old straw hat in the brand new chair. trying not to feel guilty about it. But that's my baggage to deal with.

Oh yeah - check out the article in Sundays Free Press on how "free parking" really isn't free and imposes a surtax on people who take public transit, walk, cycle, or carpool to the store. And for a moment to ponder - check out this great post by No Impact Man - that's what prompted me to write this post. Its' a great blog about living responsibly.

Enjoy the day,
(sorry - no time to drop in attractive images today)


  1. As one who is still part of the retail world and has been in it for more years than I care to think about- I've noticed a steady decline in people's manners, courtesy and overall interaction with sales associates.
    Instead of asking for help, we get the snaping fingers, or a yell "hey! I NEED service here NOW!" from way across the sales floor, or the please-hold-while-I'm-on-my-cel-but-don't-you-DARE-walk-away finger,or many other extremely rude behaviours. Now, these have always been around, but now it's been every 9 in 10 customers who are rude and inconsiderate, whereas 5 years ago it was maybe 5 or 6 in 10.
    We as a society weren't SO plugged into our media bits- yes we had celphones and such, but you didn't see friends walking together down the street having a conversation while still having their ipods plugged in their ears. We still had respect for what each other had to say- or at least would allow the other person TO say something.
    ...maybe I'm just getting old, but what the heck happened to the good ol' days!??

  2. I hate shopping centres (malls) too.I buy 97% of my clothes from 2nd hand/charity shops.I also buy my kids stuff from there too, but a lot of people sell their kids's clothes on ebay now.Where I live the town centre is taken up with mobile (cell) phone shops.Very few independent stores remain, which is a shame because you just know all the profit is going to big coperations and not back into the community.Nice to meet another blogger and Tweep!

  3. Just really still getting the hang of this blog thing - thanks for finding me! Very nice to re-connect, tea sounds nice, we can co-ordinate after your return.
    As ever

  4. I would love to be able to shop in independent stores, buy organic, and all that jazz..but the bottom line is, we can't afford it. That's why the big box stores like Wal-Mart etc make a killing; it's cheaper there usually than anywhere else. I don't like the idea that my stuff comes from sweatshops or that my veggies were grown in chemicals, but the alternatives are often simply ghastly in price; we went window-shopping at a few such places in the Wolseley area and were horrified by the costs. It seems to be a hippie nowadays, one has to have a lot of dispensible income, which was what the hippies were against in the first place.It's usually either the $5 shorts, or none at all, in my household.

    I do try to shop at Value Village/second hand stores often, as these are reasonably priced, but the selection isn't always great.

    I agree with you about how people treat retail workers like personal servants; I was in the retail business for years too and could tell you of the horrors I've seen. I always try to chat, smile, say please and thank you to retail workers, and it usually follows the law of return: the nicer we are, typically the better the service.

  5. It's disgusting the way so many people go into stores and behave like utter boors. They treat the employees like dirt, wreck the places and set their ill-behaved children loose to run amok as if it's a playground rather than a place of business. I worked in retail for years and always go out of my way to treat clerks/waitstaff/etc well and to put items back neatly if I'm not going to buy them. I even find myself straightening up stores at times out of habit.

    I wish I knew what the answer was. It seems to me that people are meaner everywhere, not just in the stores. If we could figure out why maybe we could fix it...