Like most good urban liberals, I’ve been engaged in a lifelong near-boycott of Walmart. Not so much out of any deeply felt, principled objections to the store, but because they don’t really build Walmarts in big liberal cities. When the company tries to set up shop in a liberal town, it’s frequently stymied by union groups and their allies. The myriad zoning and permitting rules surrounding urban land create many avenues for groups with political clout to block disfavored stores, and such moves have, for example, kept Walmart out of New York City for years.
But on Wednesday, after running a gantlet of political obstacles, two new Walmarts opened in Washington, D.C. And the one I visited, at least, is pretty great. Walmart simply crushes the brick-and-mortar competition available in the city, and its competitors were quite right to try to rig the game against it. The only real question is whether these kinds of big-box stores have any real future at all in the age of Amazon.
The store, at H Street and First Street NW, is designed in an appealing way to fit into the urban landscape. Parking is below ground, the shopping is on a single level, and apartments are above. Eventually, the exterior of the building will be ringed by several smaller shops—build-out is nearly complete on a Starbucks and a branch of Capital One Bank.
Inside, the store has been squeezed into a smaller-than-usual footprint without doing much to sacrifice what’s appealing about traditional suburban Walmarts. There’s a bit less stuff for sale (no guns, for example) than I’ve seen in visits to Walmarts in Maine and North Carolina. But to see the store’s true power, you need to wander over to the grocery section. The United Food and Commercial Workers are at the center of the labor alliance against Walmart, and it’s no coincidence. UFCW represents workers at the region’s Safeway and Giant supermarkets, and the Walmart grocery shopping experience is like what they offer—only much, much better.
It’s a decidedly downscale shopping experience. A range of Hamburger Helper (and Chicken Helper spinoff) was on sale for a dollar a box, you can snag a jar of Ragu meat-flavored pasta sauce for $1.98, and the dairy aisle dedicates more shelf space to conventional yogurt than to strained Greek-style brands. The only real selling point for foodies is the availability of beef tongue, prominently labeled as lengua de vaca and clearly marketed more at Latin American immigrants than gentrifying taco lovers. But compared with the union stores, the aisles are pleasantly wide, the shopping carts all have functioning wheels, and the shelves have every kind of boxed macaroni and cheese a person could want. It even offers some financial services, like a check-cashing operation where you can get up to $1,000 for a $3 fee. Because a good deal on check cashing is a way to get customers in the door and ready to shop, Walmart can offer a much better rate than a stand-alone storefront check-cashing operation that needs to rely on fees as a profit center.
Most damningly, the store is well-staffed with friendly and helpful people who make the Safeway experience seem like shopping in a Russian customs line. The (I assume) lower pay lets Walmart hire more people. And however meager the wages may be, they were high enough that 23,000 people applied for 600 positions at the stores, meaning the people who got picked are probably pretty good at their jobs.
MattY concludes his post with the prediction that online shopping is the wave of the future. I guess it never occurs to him that some people actually enjoy shopping. In fact, the whole article reveals more about MattY than it does about Walmart.
It’s no secret that Progs despise Walmart, and not just because it is the most evilest corporation that ever existed. They associate Walmart with redneck Proles and other members of the unwashed masses. It’s headquartered in Arkansas for gosh sakes!
So I have to give MattY credit for being open-minded enough to actually venture in among the lower classes. He must have felt like an anthropologist studying a tribe of savages.
The attitude of Progs toward Proles is similar to the attitude of the Spanish missionaries to the Native Americans. Progs see Proles as cultural and intellectual inferiors who are in need of salvation, enlightenment and guidance so that they may become civilized. It never occurs to Progs that the Proles would be happier and better off without their “help.”