July 15, 2009

Big Box Malaise

Wally World is coming to my town. I have mixed feelings about the new store. After reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2002 book Nickel and Dimed, I didn’t shop at Big Box stores for a time. The book talks about the plight of low-wage workers in our country, and was not favorable to Big Box stores.

I shop at the Wally World in our county seat every 4 or 5 weeks. But I prefer the homegrown stores as my parents did when I grew up in northern Indiana.

My father, a teacher, willingly paid more per gallon for gasoline so he could trade at the local Mobil gas station. Moreover, my family bought appliances –from a catalog and thus sight unseen – at the local hardware store too small to stock all models.

Where I live today is a suburban village, but shares some nice attributes with the rural town where I grew up. We have many local businesses and local chains that provide excellent products and services. Our local coffee shop makes award-winning doughnuts and cookies, and our farmer's market provides fresh, locally grown product, homemade desserts, and penny candy.

At our grocery, the man who stocks the dairy section knows to point out where my favorite “Wild Cherry Lite” yogurt is on his shelf that day. At the family-owned butcher shop, the son went to school with my son and always asks about him. He also knows without my asking that I like hamburger ground from a better cut and then freezer-wrapped. Our hardware store, though part of a small chain, still sells bolts, screws, and nuts by the ones. The red-coated clerks will also carry heavy softener salt bags to my car if I ask.

The world has dramatically changed since 2002 when Nickel and Dimed debuted. Over the past decade, Wally World has supposedly heightened its social conscience with new green initiatives, better employee health care, and gender parity for promotions. They are now one of the largest employers in the country, if not the world.

“Damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” describes my mixed feelings about this new store. We have two Wally Worlds within miles. We shop at one of them every four or five weeks. The yogurt our family eats is 16 cents cheaper there. Wally World’s price on school supplies undercuts the office stores, and kitty litter is about 40 percent of the cost at our grocery store.

With my own economic change, I am more cost conscious and switch brands to save a few pennies (except for generic tomato soup – never!) I used the red and white box brand of detergent for 30 years and now switched to a green box brand. The green box is cheaper everywhere and significantly cheaper at Wally World. The quality is the same.

Aye, but here’s the rub. When the third Wally World opens, what happens to all those other businesses and my friends and neighbors who work there? Those businesses may close, and that has a negative impact on our community, more people who cannot afford preventive health care or baby formula or food for the table. If these businesses go, who will support the Little League? Parents who lose jobs stop using day care, cars are fixed and not replaced, and vacations are a thing of the past.

Dozens of friends and neighbors, who would have never considered working at Wally World in the past, lined up at the new store's hiring center all summer for one of the 500 available jobs.

I have no answers only more questions.

What is the answer in this current economic teeter-totter?

Thirty years ago tonight President Jimmy Carter gave his famed “malaise” speech (though the word “malaise” never appeared) President Carter lectured the American people on our lack of confidence and told us to buck up.

President Reagan tried a different approach but "morning in America" only worked for about 10 percent of the population, riding on a market high which ultimately crashed last fall. Today 40 million people lack health insurance, unemployment (for those reporting) is just under ten percent, and those middle-class people with jobs await the next layoff.

Is this the fault of a sociopathic free market system or a failure of the broken government we have? Oh, that is a loaded question. I have no answers, only malaise. Quoth the raven.

Pop culture trivia question of the day: Name two other pop culture icons that like Jimmy Carter's "malaise" were concocted and never really happened? Carl Sagan never said "billions and billions" -- Johnny Carson coined it on "The Tonight Show" in lampooning Sagan, and of course "Play It Again, Sam" was never said by Bogey in that Moroccan bar in "Casablanca." QTR.