By G. Michael Dobbs
About three or four times a year, I wind up shopping at a Wal-Mart. I do so out of two basic reasons: convenience – read laziness here – and because they have a surprisingly good selection of DVDs.
Most of the time, my wife and I manage successfully to purchase what we need elsewhere.
I know when I walk into a Wal-Mart that the experience will probably take longer than completing transactions at other stores due to the long lines at checkouts. That alone usually gives me immediate buyer's remorse.
My guilt has been even greater lately in light of the recent fire in Bangladesh of a clothing factory – a Wal-Mart supplier – in which more than 120 people died. Also, I've heard a series of stories over NPR on the conditions in supply warehouses that service Wal-Mart.
The reports on the show "Marketplace" have been detailing how Wal-Mart subcontracts out its warehouse logistics to other companies that then hire workers as "temps." Some of these employees have been temporary for years.
I understand that Wal-Mart is not directly responsible for the fire or for the hiring practices of other companies, except for the fact the company has a list of standards for their business partners. Not having fire exits is an apparent violation of that code.
The discount retail scene in this area, as well as most of the nation, has changed radically in the past 20 years. Gone are Two Guys, Caldor's, Ames and Bradlees. Gone as well are many of the manufacturing jobs that produced consumer products in this nation.
When it first opened many years ago, Wal-Mart's Springfield store actually had banners that noted that by buying certain products Wal-Mart had "saved" American jobs. Those banners have long since disappeared.
By outsourcing factory jobs – many of them represented by unions – American businesses have eliminated the very way many people have worked their way into the middle class. They have also assured a market for cheap consumer goods made in countries such as China because those are the ones this new economic class of working poor/working class can afford.
It's a hideous cycle.
Companies such as Wal-Mart compound the problem by creating part-time schedules for many of its employees that is great for the bottom line, but not so great for building a financially healthier workforce.
Doesn't it make long-term sense for any retailer to want to have a customer base that can afford to purchase a wider variety of goods?
Competitors such as Costco have shown a different business model, in which employees are better paid, can succeed.
The next time I need a dish strainer or tube socks or some other mundane item, I will make an even greater effort than I have been to think before I spend. Already my wife and I do as much of our purchasing as possible in locally- or regionally-owned businesses. We both look to where a product is made and seek American-made items. Now, I'll make a point to get what I need elsewhere.
And I'm sure I can still find deals on DVDs if I look just a bit longer.
A reader sent me a note wondering if I've heard anything from the Elizabeth Warren staff after my recent column in which I reached out to them.
The answer is, so far, no.
I can't say that I'm surprised.
Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at email@example.com or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.