Forget Microsoft; Break Up Wal-Mart
Editorial written by on Wednesday, May 3, 2000
Poor Microsoft. After years of bashing Netscape, Sun, AOL, and bullying computer manufactures, their day of reckoning has come. The Federal government aims to break up Bill Gates' monster monopoly, proposing that the software and operating system divisions be surgically separated.
I am a Microsoft slave, actually. Point, click and crash is all I know. I use Eudora for my e-mail, and Netscape for my browser, but I'm still Bill's bitch when it comes right down to it. I am no stranger to the Blue Screen of Death, security holes large enough to drive a truck through, or millions of lines of unnecessary code that bog down my machine. I know these things well.
I am ambivalent about this proposed breakup, however. I think there are bigger fish the Feds could fry. And I'm not really talking about Rust Communications, which owns every newspaper from here to East Jesus, Oklahoma. I'll save that argument for some other day.
No, I'm referring to America's biggest monopoly: Wal-Mart.
Scene #1: Summer of 1999. I am working out of town in Farmington, and get a hankering to read a new hardback book hot off the presses. I go looking for a bookstore.
There were none. I asked one girl at a grocery store where the nearest bookstore was, and she says with no trace of irony, "Wal-Mart." Wal-Mart is the bookstore. How nice.
Of course, they didn't have the book I wanted. Paperback romances and the latest John Grisham and Stephen King, you betcha. Mass-consumption at it's finest.
Scene #2: Two weeks ago, 8:30 AM. My mother needs a new battery for her watch, and the only store in town that carries it is... you guessed it... Wal-Mart.
At 8:30 AM, the parking lot is nearly full. Idling cars with lazy old blue-hairs lurk in the fire lanes, and other cars circle slowly, not unlike vultures, trying to find that perfect space. (Kind of like parking at SEMO, come to think of it.)
Inside, it's the usual pandemonium. Three lanes are open, and each has roughly twenty people in line. The laws of nature tell us that "the more people who are in a line, the more likely some asshole in front will cause a bottleneck by requesting a price check". So of course nothing was moving.
Just another day at Wally World.
Wal-Mart is often praised for focusing on smaller and mid-sized towns. To this day, Wal-Mart has never attempted to make a major move into urban markets. This lets the Walton family tout their empire as "home-grown", "hometown" and "just part of the good ol' boy network".
Heck, that thar Wal-Mart store even has a feller at the door that does nuthin' but say `Howdy'! Ain't that a nice country touch?
I don't really think that Wal-Mart locates in small towns because of some noble commitment to rural America. They locate there because it's easier to dominate in those markets. It's more profitable to rule in Charleston, for example, than to be just another store in St. Louis. It's an ingenious business strategy that made Sam Walton the richest man in America for a long, long time... until being misplaced by the current government whipping boy, Bill Gates. Coincidence? You decide.
When a Wal-Mart opens in a small town, the local five and dimes go belly up. Kiss your local hardware store goodbye. Ta ta, bookstore. Ciao, ol' electronics store. Wal-Mart is the small town equivalent of "going to the mall". Small businesses can't compete. Therefore, they die.
If, God forbid, the Wal-Mart is a dreaded SuperCenter, then your local grocery stores will feel the heat. Wally-World may even have a tire and lube joint attached to the store, driving the local mechanics nuts. Need an optometrist or a haircut? Sorry, gotta go to Wal-Mart.
God, I hope they never start selling gas. The lines will be atrocious. [Actually, they do. -- The Editor]
I've theorized before that if the Federal government, Wal-Mart, AOL, McDonald's, and Microsoft ever merged, we'd all be pretty much screwed. But don't rule that out. McDonald's already has little express shops set up inside many Wal-Marts, and the government used Wal-Mart as the exclusive private distributor of the new Sacagawea dollar coins.
Coincidence again? Perhaps not.
But they have a greeter at the door, right? So it's all better, right?
In all fairness to Wal-Mart, they really do have low prices. The free market is a beautiful thing, and the Waltons have earned their money within the bounds of the law. 'Superstores' are all the rage, with computer megastores, hardware megacenters, grocery wholesalers, etc. Mom and Pop retail is a thing of the past, for the most part. Wal-Mart was just the forerunner of this trend.
But is it really worth it? Packed parking lots? Stores the size of football fields? Lines backed up all the way to Gordonville? Customer service so wretched that it makes one want to gnaw off a leg to escape?
Kind of like a monopoly, isn't it? And millions more people are put through this than see the Blue Screen of Death in any given day. Yet, our government does nothing to break up Wally World.
Probably because they just love that greeter at the door. It makes it all better, having someone say "Hi" when you walk in the door, doesn't it?
Not for me. Screw that, I say. Take that Geritol-sucking greeter and stick him on a damned cash register, and maybe I can get out of there quicker.
I'm there every day, you know. I have to be.
My job requires taking a lot of pictures, and Wal-Mart is the only one-hour photo shop in my town.