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The snobbery of Wal-Mart rejection

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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2006

When it comes to Wal-Mart, I can get fully behind critiques that attack its monosoponic powers or its systematic suppression of unionization efforts or its failure to provide adequate benefits. I can even understand the rationale behind Chicago’s attempt to force big-box stores like Wal-Mart to pay a “living wage.” But I draw the line at fighting Wal-Mart because it’s somehow uncool to shop there: this WSJ story, which details how urban environments are trying to prevent Wal-Mart from opening in their midst, cites Boston mayor Thomas Minino claiming that “Wal-Mart does not suit the clientele we have in the city of Boston.” If that were really the case, why make any efforts to prevent them from opening? The store would just go out of business when the clientele fails to materialize. But the mayor knows all too well the store would succeed and be a magnet for lower-income families, for whom the store’s cheap goods often provide a real boost in living standards. The mayor favors Target, but not because of its wages or benefits: “It’s a different image they have in how they market their product and the appearance of their stores,” he says. “That’s a lot to do with it, the image of the store.” In other words, middle-class shoppers come to Target, whose presence in your neighborhood is likely to improve your property values rather than call them into question. With this classically smug latte-liberal utterance, Minino justifies the cynical culture-war griping of many a Republican reactionary. Ooh, we don’t want Wal-Mart’s trailer-trash reputation in our precious city, it just wouldn’t be Bostonian. What would the brahmins think? It makes every one who has ever complained about Wal-Mart seem a little bit more hypocritical in the eyes of its defenders, as they suspect these kind of aesthetic niceties lie at the root of every protest.


In fact, that’s probably part of the reason this story is above the fold on page one of the Journal, and these mayoral quotes feature prominantly and early. (It even forced an especially amusing A-hed story, about Belgium’s lack of stop signs and the resulting frequency of crashes, down below the fold.) It presents such a perfect picture of those politicos and urbanites who reject Wal-Mart as snobs, and Wal-Mart as the unfortunate victim of unfair discrimiation. A city commissioner from Miami is even quoted saying, “I feel bad for Wal-Mart, but that’s their image.” No one needs to “feel bad” for Wal-Mart, which remains the largest American retailer by a long stretch, in large part because of its successful efforts to broadcast loud and clear its image as a ruthless discounter. Wal-Mart would love to portray itself as a victim of its own irresistibility. The WSJ and Boston’s mayor have conspired to oblige, and to make anti-Wal-Mart agitation seem like a variant of the same bourgeois busybodism that animates homeowners’ associations who fret about people who fail to mow their lawns with sufficient frequency.


But the reason to organize against Wal-Mart is never because it is popular or déclassé; such trivial motives will inevitably trivialize the entire effort. You can’t snub the people who shop at Wal-Mart as the wrong sort of people and then complain about the wages the company pays to those very same people; chances are the class bigotry does much more damage than Wal-Mart’s business practices ever could do. 

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