While the relatively rare examples of Thanksgiving/Black Friday brutality will certainly be over-reported and sensationalized, they are real (the #WalMartFights hashtag on Twitter will crush your view of humanity).
I would contend this inhumane/unhuman behavior is the logical end of (a) ruthlessly successful marketing campaigns that convince large groups of people (especially very susceptible children) that joy on Christmas morning can only be attained through possessing specific, mass-produced stuff, and (b) a big-box model that has found it is very profitable to use volume purchasing to marginally reduce prices and treat customers like cattle in a high-density feedlot.
(Hyperbole? When you cram people into close quarters, snake them through lines to tag them with wristbands, then throw open gates and watch them trample and shove each other to get to the desired item? Still think so?)
Let me be try to be clear about my concern here and what (I hope) it isn't:
- I'm not casting stones without my own sins here. I very rarely do have to go to Wal-Mart because it is late and I'm out of dog food or something else I cannot get at the Euclid Kroger. And clearly I'm not some local-only purist because I give a lot of my money to said Kroger, which is a gigantic grocery retail chain that has done its part to muscle out small, independent markets and grocers.
- And my criticism is not--like much that I read--based on a classist dislike for people who do all of their shopping at Wal-Mart. It is easy for people with plenty of disposable income to mock "Wal-Martians" when they've never had their checkbooks in a place where Wal-Mart's 30 cents saving on something was meaningful. Mine has been in that shape before.
My problem with Wal-Mart is that I believe the way they treat their customers is different in kind than even other national retailers. My problem with them is that they are aware of their customers' desperate need, and, as a result, treat their patrons like garbage. They don't only have three lanes open with sixty people in line because they are incompetent; they do so because they don't want to pay other cashiers, and they know their customers have no choice but to suffer through it.
It is their right to do so. The Waltons have brilliantly managed their business model and a humongous supply chain and simply crushed many rural retail markets with a value proposition of price and selection. I'm a capitalist, so I'm not railing against them as evil. But, I do advocate consumers--when they have the blessing of being able to choose--deciding what market behaviors they want to reward.
The very real antidote to Wal-Mart's approach is to support more humanist retail experiences and ensure they survive. Every time I buy something at Lowe's that I can get at Chevy Chase Hardware, I'm saying that having a place in my neighborhood, with people who can advise me from their experience, is just not a value to me. Since it is valuable to me, I have to be diligent. I don't think it is compelling when "buy local" advocates tell me the common refrain that "x more pennies per dollar stays in the community." That is abstract and doesn't convey the real ramifications of the decision. The issue is whether you want to have options at all.
Moreover, we need to remember that there are wonderful gifts that do not have 30 second commercials on national television. In fact, I can get my loved ones some unique, locally made item and, in doing so, tacitly dispute the notion that owning the selfsame things as other people somehow validates us.
It is easy to come across as sanctimonious in supporting shopping local, and I certainly have no grounds on which to feel superior to anyone. I just really intend on refocusing my gift shopping to try to support the locally owned businesses near me and I hope anyone reading this will too.