Economy & Business

The Corner

The $29 Basket

In Impromptus today, I have an item on higher education, and I lead into it with a point about Walmart. (I have a reason, I promise.) Walmart is no longer a bogeyman, I sense. This is probably because it’s less powerful in the marketplace than it once was.

During the 2000s, Walmart was frequently reviled. Some criticisms were valid, I’m sure — but some of them were nuts. And a lot of us said, “You never hear Walmart attacked by people who depend on it for shopping. Or for employment. The only people who attack Walmart are those who can afford to shop elsewhere, or who don’t rely on Walmart for work.”

Anyway, I received a letter this morning, which I’d like to share with you. It comes from one of my favorite journalists in America: Mike Brown, the editor of the Rockdale Reporter in Texas.

Jay,

As you might expect, Walmart has been cast as a villain for many years by the community newspaper business. Some justification. The treasured mom-and-pop stores which have been a factor in our advertising obviously have trouble competing. Many simply closed.

Some of the criticism appeared to me to cross the line and bemoan capitalism itself. One night in Galveston I saw a human face put on the situation and wondered if my colleagues ever thought about it in this light.

We had driven through Houston at rush hour and I was in need of leg-stretching time so I went walking while my wife and step-daughters communed with nature — that would be pool and pizza. I wound up at a Walmart a couple of blocks from the hotel.

I bought something and stood in line behind a young Hispanic mom with two young children in tow. Their basket was not full but had a reasonable amount of basic items (bread, milk, some vegetables, frozen food) and — this is what got me — a simple toy for each of the kids. They were already playing with the toys, without waiting for them to be removed from the cardboard to which they were attached.

I heard the cashier ring her up. The total was $29. And I thought, “Don’t tell me how evil Walmart is. Tell her.”

P.S. In my column, there is a language note, which asks, in part, Why do so many Midwesterners say “vanella” instead of “vanilla”? (I’m from Michigan.) A reader writes to ask, Do your fellow Michiganders say “melk,” too, instead of “milk”? Answer: Hell yes. The reader further notes that “melk” is the Dutch word for “milk.” We got a lotta Dutchmen in Michigan. Anyway, this will require further investigation …

P.P.S. I was always a Walmart defender — but when they came out for Obamacare, I was less quick to defend. They were acting in their interest, of course: Walmart could weather Obamacare where competing stores could not. But was it in the interest of the country? Anyway, this is history, though perhaps interesting history.

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