Shopping at Wal-Mart Like Nightmarish Trip Overseas
I got to Wal-Mart about an hour after it opened yesterday, which was fine by me, because I’d heard all about that woman in Florida who said she got trampled at a Wal-Mart last month when the siren sounded at 6 a.m. for the early-bird special, and everybody made a mad rush for the $29.87 DVD players, stampeding right over her.
It was already plenty crowded at what I believe to be the only Wal-Mart in Los Angeles proper, the one in Crenshaw Plaza. The aisles were freeway-packed with carts, and the carts were packhorse-piled with goods -- some of them, in this season, the kind of pointless ornamentalia that people exchange at the holidays for no other reason than gift-for-gift parity. My grandmother called these fussy dust-catchers “tissy-boos.”
I was terrified someone would recognize me. I’d rather be caught at a peep show than shopping at Wal-Mart. The Times’ recent series by Abigail Goldman and Nancy Cleeland validated all my worst suspicions, detailing the world’s biggest retailer’s full-throated race to the bottom -- bottom dollar and bottom line, the corporate nation that runs at the front of the pack in pushing jobs offshore, pushing prices low and wages lower. It’s the Wal-Mart limbo dance: Whether it’s price or public responsibility, how low can you go?
Sam Walton’s autobiography is subtitled “Made in America.” Sam’s been dead about a dozen years, but I’d still like to take him shopping with me to find out just what there is in Wal-Mart, besides Mr. Sam, that’s made in America. The grail of free trade -- Greenbacks Sans Frontieres -- has made it not only old-fashioned to “Buy American,” but damned near impossible.
All right, Mr. Sam, just inside the door, Jordache low-rise jeans, $17.94 -- from the Philippines. That floaty pink rayon blouse on sale for $9 -- India. Ah, here we go, L’Eggs panty hose, nude, sheer-toe, three pairs for $5, made in USA -- of imported and domestic fibers. And oh, Sam, oh, Walt -- a Disney Winnie-the-Pooh anniversary clock for $19.86 ... made in China?
I tell you, who needs an exotic overseas vacation? Let Wal-Mart take you on a tour of the far-flung souks and sweatshops of the world, brought right here to your own hometown:
Little girls’ Fruit of the Loom boy-leg briefs, two pairs, pink and blue, $4.66, made in Egypt. Scooby-Doo men’s sleep pants, trademark Cartoon Network, $11.93, made in Cambodia. A Vassarette silken heather underwire bra, $9.66, size thirty- ... no, you don’t
Don’t I need a visa for this? No, just a Visa.
Faded Glory shirts with the stars-and-stripes label -- “established 1972,” and made in China 2003. Vicks Vaporub cream, $4.32, made in Mexico. A dozen candy canes, made in Brazil. An Austrian crystal choker and earring set, $6.84, made in China. A Char-Broil Quickset barbecue grill is stamped “made in USA,” but the one-liter size of charcoal starter comes from South Africa. And ... et tu, Timex? America’s wristwatch, now manufactured in the Philippines.
And I loved this one: The Spanish-language Christmas cards, $2 for a box of 32, were made in the USA.
They say 2004 will be the year of the NASCAR dad vote, so here’s a boxed gift set, four NASCAR helmet-mugs and tins filled with cocoa and cookies, made in Singapore and China.
There must still be some kind of cachet to made-in-America labeling, because the front of a Booda dog-chew package reads “handcrafted with USA hides since 1963,” but turn it over and it says, “made in Mexico and Paraguay.”
Finally, I wandered into a cardboard display of DVDs. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was front and center, its packaging “printed in the USA.” The holiday classic that proves the difference that one good-hearted little guy can make by standing up to power and wealth.
Yeah, and tomorrow night a fat guy in a red suit will shimmy down my chimney to bring me Viggo Mortensen and an aquamarine necklace.
Wal-Mart’s mascot is that simpering yellow happy face tricked out in a Robin Hood hat. I guess it’s meant to prove that Wal-Mart, whose founders’ heirs are five of the 15 richest people in the country, robs from the rich and gives to the poor.
I didn’t talk to the shoppers. They were busy, and what’s the point? Just as the bus strikes pitted the working class against the working poor, Wal-Mart sucks them all up: foreign workers desperate for jobs, American workers whose real wages have dropped and left them desperate for cheap goods, and Americans who would rather work at Wal-Mart’s non-union jobs, with poor benefits and lower wages, than have no work at all. It’s a circle of falling dominoes: Because decent-paying working- and middle-class American jobs are harder to come by, shoppers can’t afford to go elsewhere, so they buy goods made overseas for pennies an hour, which encourages manufacturers to shut factories here to send work overseas, which means that more decent-paying jobs ... you see where this goes.
This is why the striking grocery workers have held out for 10 weeks, and it’s why it’s in their interest and the supermarket chains’ interest to join forces and hang together or, as Ben Franklin warned, they all hang separately. It’s also the reason that in cities like Inglewood, Bakersfield and Oakland, unions and small shop owners and some homeowner groups and even city officials are standing at the city limits and declaring, “They shall not pass.” Otherwise, it’ll be Wal-Mart’s world, and we’ll just live in it.
I walked out past a bank of vending machines. Two sold soft drinks I recognized; the other two sold drinks I’d never heard of, Wal-Mart’s version of popular brands.
“Sam’s American Choice purified drinking water” at 25 cents was sold out, so I thought I’d take a chance on “Dr. Thunder,” the Wal-Mart answer to Dr. Pepper, at 35 cents. That was sold out, too.
The machine gave me back my dime, but kept my quarter. I wasn’t surprised. Wal-Mart owes me two bits. It’s not much, but it’s a good start.
Patt Morrison’s columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is patt. firstname.lastname@example.org.