A recent survey named Wal-Mart employees the lowest-paid corporate workforce in America. This was not especially surprising, as the giant retailer has a solid reputation for low wages, lousy benefits and class-action lawsuits brought by disgruntled “associates.” The survey reminded me of the time I published a weekly newspaper, and we opposed Wal-Mart’s plans to build a store on the edge of town. While our editorials resonated with most readers, who worried about the relentless sprawl the development portended, others called us shills for local merchants or elitist snobs. Wal-Mart won, as it generally does, but I like to think we made a difference to the final product.
And yet Wal-Mart is also the country’s most popular and successful retailer, patronized by 125 million people each week. It is the world’s largest employer, and its revenues trail only those of Exxon and Shell. Hilary Clinton once sat on its board, and George Will called it: “the most prodigious job-creator in the history of the private sector in this galaxy,” one that saves shoppers $200 billion annually.
You can find almost anything you want in a Wal-Mart, which is how I felt in the 1950s when I went to the general store in my grandmother’s town with my allowance in my pocket. I took my time deciding what to choose, knowing I couldn’t have everything on the shelves.
Maybe it’s just my nostalgia, but the excitement of choosing something seems to have been lost in a world where we can’t ever seem to have enough.