Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On shopping snobbery

"You look really good in that dress!" said the checker, smiling broadly at me. "Where'd you get it?"

As a short fat woman in modern America, I rarely experience this scenario. Other than appreciative comments by Captain Midnight (thanks, honey!), I don't get much positive feedback on my appearance. So both the kind comment and the followup question startled me into saying the first thing that came into my head, which was the truth.

"Um... Walmart, actually," I murmured.

And then it hit me. A full-on Frosty Glare from the checker. I'd just outed myself with a politically incorrect purchase from the juggernaut of capitalist hell that is Wally World, and she was no longer friendly (though to her credit, she retained her civility through the rest of the transaction). At the time, I mostly found it amusing -- if I'd lied about where I'd bought it, no doubt she would have LOVED the dress, but the adorable became the abhorrent merely due to purchasing provenance? Whateva! -- but after mulling it over a while, I've realized there's a bit more to be said about this exchange.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is unpopular in the Puget Sound area. About a decade ago, Walmart tried to open a store in my town, but public outrage and an active campaign against the store drove the company out. Consequently, if I want to reach a full-service Walmart, I have to drive about half an hour north or south. After figuring in the cost of gas, it nearly always makes more financial sense to shop closer to home. Sometimes, though, I do visit with my niece (who unabashedly loves Wally World for its cheap craft items, cosmetics and bargain-bin DVDs), and one time I happened to find a plus-sized dress that a) actually fit me, b) was attractive and c) was ridiculously cheap. Since this confluence of factors occurs roughly once in a blue moon, I bought the dress forthwith and I've never regretted it. (Well, not 'til I got Frosty Glared, anyway.)

You know, I do get why people hate Walmart. (Believe me, everyone who hates it seems eager to tell me why, in vivid detail and often with explanatory charts and graphs.) They don't pay their people enough. They buy goods from Third World sweatshops. They spirit money away from the local economy and put small stores out of business. The goods are low-priced because they're low-quality. The stores attract the lowest common denominator. Walmarts alter or abolish the quaintness of small-town American life. If you're in favor of Truth, Justice and the American Way, by gum, you should shop somewhere else!

But there are some problems with hating on Wally World and similar discount stores. For one thing, household shopping is not a one-size-fits-all pursuit. (Trust the plus-sized woman when she says this.) The people who complain loudest about Walmart shoppers often seem to assume those shoppers could afford to patronize some other store (and therefore should). But not everyone in America has access to a middle-class income or a wide range of choice about where to spend it.

My mother raised six children alone on a teacher's salary and Social Security payments. To her credit, she did very well on a minuscule income. She cooked from scratch, shopped sales, looked for discounts, saved for things she wanted, did without. And let me tell you something: when you have six kids to feed (three of them teenagers) and only $17 to last you to the end of the month, you don't spend that money on a single exquisite wedge of cheese from Whole Foods. You go to a discount grocery, where you can use that same amount to fill a modest basket with cheap, nourishing food.

People in or near poverty don't get to choose between cheap and expensive bread -- their choice is cheap bread or nothing. Even if they have access to a Whole Foods, a Wegman's or a Metropolitan Market, they can't afford to eat cake from their in-store bakeries. Places like Wal-Mart make it possible for the poorest Americans to tread water on a meager income until things get better.

Oh yeah, here's the other thing: for most people, things do get better. As poor newlyweds, Captain Midnight and I did our shopping at a discount grocery. It was an older store, not very clean, poorly merchandised, and you had to be careful about the cuts of meat you picked up from that place, but I'd been taught how to shop and how to cook (thank you, Mom!), so we got by just fine. As time went on and CM moved up in the company, we could afford to trade up to a nicer grocery store -- so we did. It's a typical story in America. While Walmart may attract the poorest people, they aren't perpetually the same people.

Should your shopping choices reflect your ethical beliefs? Sure, if you can afford it and it's important to you. For instance, I picked Bartell Drugs to fill our prescriptions because it's locally-owned, well-stocked, has great customer service, the 24-hour store meets my night-owl needs, and I happen to like the folks who work there; the way I see it, if my modest purchases at Bartell's help pay good people's wages, so much the better. But I can't demand that everyone shop there, because I can't presume to know what other people's needs and household finances are like -- and even if I did know, it wouldn't be up to me to dictate how others spend their money.

Snobbery in any form is ugly. But shopping snobbery is toxic in part because our culture allows, rationalizes, even champions it as a social good. The people who can least afford to spend more money on their households get relentlessly pressured -- by people who have the luxury of far more discretionary income -- to avoid the very places that could help them climb out of poverty. That isn't right. Look, if you don't like Walmart, you're not alone. But don't give people Frosty Glares and excess grief about shopping there -- because from where I'm standing, the echoes of your strident denunciation sound a whole lot like "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche."


Dan B. said...

In our community, there's a Wal-Mart. Everyone enjoys it. Know what else? Both other grocery stores are still doing brisk business. when we shop, we go to Wal-Mart for basic goods, and to the other local stores for products Wal-Mart doesn't stock, or has, but at a lesser quality (meats, etc.). Hating on Wal-Mart is delusional at best.

Jaleta Clegg said...

The war on discount stores is really starting to bother me, too. Not just on the people who shop there, but on the companies themselves. Some jobs just aren't going to pay a living wage no matter how much you want them to. If they paid living wages at Wally's or MickeyD's, they couldn't offer their products for cheap. If you're stuck working for that low of a wage, use the job to learn new skills and gain experience so you can get a better job. Figure out how to get into management, which does pay a living wage. And quit expecting a living wage to mean you can afford a big house, RV, cars, nice clothes, and trips around the world. Living wage means you have a home and enough basic food to keep you alive and functional.
Sorry for the soapbox. The entitlement mentality is driving me bonkers lately.

Soozcat said...

Something I didn't point out when I first wrote this: a number of people who really hate Wal-Mart also tend to be fond of IKEA. Funny thing about that is, all the frequent complaints people throw at Wal-Mart (it attempts to avoid paying taxes, it sucks money out of the communities in which it's located, its prices are too low for local companies to compete against it, it sells cheaply-made stuff from China and other sweatshop nations, etc.) apply equally to IKEA. I guess what it really comes down to is that people like the frugal Swedish vibe and dislike the crass-consumerist American vibe.