Sunday, December 8, 2013

An Urban Liberal Discovers Walmart

Being a good liberal means knowing what to love and what to hate. Today's liberalism, you see, is a passion. It consumes its adherents, often to the point of blinding them to reality.

Take Walmart. Liberals hate Walmart. Liberals hate Walmart because labor unions told them that they must hate Walmart. Liberals do not often ask themselves why they hate Walmart. They certainly do not ask whether keeping Walmart out of major American cities serves the best interests of the people who live there.

Recently, a self-identified “good urban liberal” named Matthew Yglesias checked out the new Walmart that just opened in Washington, D. C. It was the district’s first Walmart… which means that it now has more Walmarts than New York.

That Ygleesias was pleasantly surprised is not news. That he offered some interesting reflections on the state of American shopping is not news either. What is news is that his brief column suggests that some liberals are asking themselves whether the mindless boycott of Walmart serves the local community.

Yglesias sets the scene:

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.

Unionized supermarket workers, to say nothing of the other stores that purvey both wet and dry goods, have happily used their political power to, Yglesias says, “rig the game” against Walmart. What good is power if you cannot use it to undermine the free market?

It’s the liberal two-step: you stifle free competition and then you rail against the free market.

Yglesias explains:

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….

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.

Of course, the unions have complained the Walmart pays minimum wage—for the most part, it doesn’t— and have suggested that it mistreats its workers.

This is not what Yglesias found in his Washington Walmart:

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.

The statistic is staggering. Tens of thousands of Washingtonians want to work at Walmart. I am confident that the D. C. community is not alone in this regard.

But, municipal government has blocked Walmart from investing in the communities and providing jobs for people who desperately need them. They have also blocked Walmart from helping, with its low prices and absurdly wide selection, to provide a better quality of life at a lower price.

Good liberals cannot let that happen.

On the other hand, the people who want these jobs voted for the City Council officials who are blocking their access to these jobs. So you do not have to feel sorry for them. Or, as the adage goes: Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.

Were we living in a truly free market economy, Walmart’s problem would not be labor unions and competing market chains. It’s real competition would be Amazon. Or, when it comes to food in New York City: Fresh Direct.

Yglesias believes that the future of shopping, at least for people like him, lies in ecommerce. Surely, that is the story that we should be watching. Not merely because we like to keep up with trends, but because the rise of ecommerce will inevitably influence commercial real estate values and job opportunities in large cities. Ecommerce can sell more things cheaper, so it also exerts deflationary pressure on prices.

Yglesias is wondering: as more and more shopping takes place online, what will become of big stores like Walmart?

In his words:

 But why would I buy some socks or a no-stick frying pan or a coffee maker at Walmart when Amazon Prime would ship almost anything to my door in 36 hours? In fact, this past November, just as the finishing touches were being put on the new Walmart, I was getting serious about putting Amazon’s Subscribe & Save feature to use. Paper towels, toilet paper, dish soap, hand soap, laundry detergent, whatever you call the stuff that goes in a dishwasher, dried pasta, canned beans, and basically anything else that won’t rot are now scheduled for drop-off on the 22nd of every month. For now, less-wired demographic groups are still eager for the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. But delivery—no parking, no schlepping—is the future of urban commerce, not reengineered big-box stores.

Yglesias is happy to let the free market sort things out:

Walmart knows this, of course, and is trying to get into the e-commerce game in a big way. But even if it succeeds (which will be very hard), urban stores seem unlikely to play a large role in a strategy that calls for goods to be distributed from very large suburban warehouses. In the meantime, cities that have been fending off Walmart have been shooting themselves in the foot. The multibrand physical retail store is a fading concept, but Walmart does it very well—and its downtown D.C. shop shows the company certainly can make it work in urban centers that deign to grant them permission to try.


David Foster said...

I think much of the "progressive" distaste for Wal-Mart is based not on labor relations, but on aesthetics. Target stores are a little better-looking than WMT stores, and so are the typical shoppers.

Larry Sheldon said...

And in the comment we have an example of the problem.

I rarely go into a Target store because they are unlikely to have what I want, the grocery department is tiny and sparse, and the aisles are narrow and poorly laid out. You can shot cannons down most of them and not frighten an employee (lower employee density than a Best But!).

The whole grocery operation is crammed into the space of a SuperCenter produce section.

But it is a lot easier to find a parking place near the door.

Lastango said...

Quite so David. There seem to be two levels of progressivist objection to Walmart. The first is the union issue Stuart raises. This is often left unspoken, because part of the game is to conceal the origins of leftist opposition. For instance, the union origins of Fair Trade are actively concealed from college students, in favor of spinning a myth that Fair Trade is about working conditions and human rights. It simply won't do to try to sign up useful idiots to agitate for putting poor people abroad out of work so they can't compete with our own garment workers, etc.

Progressives are much more up-front about their disgust for the non-elite people who shop at Wal-Mart... the hillbillies and proles who inhabit the wilds of flyover country... horrid, bitter clingers who lack even the sense to defer to the brilliant coastal cognoscenti's natural right to rule over them.

Sam L. said...

The Prog party line is, thou must hate and abhor Walmart. So, I'm seeing Iglesias is being honest in his reporting. Now he's UNCLEAN!

n.n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...

E-commerce is not the only game in town because people still like to mingle and enjoy a personal experience. When the sun is shining and the weather is fair, there is a place for both avenues and venues of trade.

Dennis said...

Quite so Lastango. This is about hatred for the "common man." The more the "common man" can find goods and services at a price that keeps them from being on the government dole, and thereby controlled, the more the elites have disgust for it.
The same would be for the "minimum wage" which only drives jobs out of the sector where these individuals can gain experience at work and earning their on way. Add Obamacare and one has a way to control millions of people.
Immigration has the same roots on the Left. It is a way for the elites to obtain "cheap" labor and to be able to look down on a new class of peon. The last thing the elites want is for people to become successful for if that happens they no longer need the elites to tell them how to lead their lives and how to live.
There is not an issue today that does not come down to controlling people and creating a condition where there are only two classes of people. The elites and those who would take direction from the elites. If I control a woman's ability to get birth control then I control that woman. I am still amazed at how cheaply women will sell themselves and become owned by government.
At some point even the terminally ill informed may figure that there is nothing that is free. It comes at a price that those who think they are getting it free do not understand. Free stuff is a sign post on the road to slavery.
For those interested take a look at the "Militia Act of 1792.

Texan99 said...

The only thing I have against WalMart is that the selection is a kind of "lowest common denominator." In our little town, WalMart is definitely the place to go for any ordinary cheap purchase of something you don't expect to last. Which, don't get me wrong, is a lot of things. Most of my wardrobe--pants and t-shirts--comes from there: I use them up and toss them. If I want a luxury item, I order it online. (There aren't any luxury stores less than several hours' drive away.)

We've also started to use "subscribe and save" a lot for household goods, especially brands that our local grocery store doesn't always carry. The trend in the grocery store is to drop name brands and carry only the house brand, which sometimes is OK and sometimes isn't.

The last thing I ever considered, in whether to shop at WalMart, was their union or wage polices.