Bernie Sanders, the Democrats’ only (openly) socialist presidential candidate joined the chorus of criticism against Walmart a while back. But many conservatives also spend a good deal of time and effort criticizing the discount store giant. The mass hysteria of Christmas shopping season provides an opportunity to reconsider Walmart—at least to a certain, limited extent.
Massive, ugly, and prone to putting mom-and-pop businesses into bankruptcy, Walmart is the success story even many free market-loving conservatives wish would fail. I have long considered myself among Walmart’s most ardent opponents. For years I would not set foot in one of their stores, certainly not for anything less than a family emergency of some (admittedly often not truly serious) kind. But I now have shopped at a Walmart every week or two for a couple of months. I have shopped there only because I am visiting at a university in a small town in Virginia that has no other convenient place to get what I need in the time frame available to a lazy, commuting-home-on-the-weekends husband and father… but still I have been shopping there.
Any reader looking for a mea culpa story of how wrong I have been to malign a wonderful store, here, will be disappointed. The prices are not noticeably cheaper than at other stores, but the products certainly are, including towels with the approximate absorbency of a hunk of cardboard. That said, the experience has been educational for me. And Walmart ought, I think, to provide a basic lesson to retailers and other companies all over our increasingly politically correct landscape. The lesson: do not openly insult your customer base.
Now, one might think this a rather obvious lesson, and one not requiring the business owner to reach a very high bar, given Walmart’s custom of selling shoddy products to customers of limited means—which is itself a bit insulting. But Target (they of the “non-gendered” toy aisles and subsequently closing stores) and many others, from Campbell’s soup to Intel to Mattel—with its new “boys’” Barbie dolls—have been ignoring this basic truth to their own cost. No doubt in part because their advertising agencies are staffed by the sort of people who enjoy making spectacles of themselves for a living, and in part because most companies are run by financial spreadsheet readers with little in the way of home life or conscience, politically-correct imaging that celebrates the latest assault on traditional values seems increasingly common both in advertisements and in stores themselves.
When not simply mimicking Social Justice Warriors, members of the urban smart-set always will turn up their noses at Walmart and its customers, convinced neither is worthy of free-trade, organic, wheat grass. And I will admit that the last time my wife shopped at a Walmart, some years ago, she swore never to go back. The tattoos, piercings, and shouted vulgarities were too much for her, as was the woman standing in line to cash her government check, wearing a shirt that declared “[expletive deleted] work.” (Would that I were kidding.) However atypical that day in a Michigan Walmart may have been, I am in the South, which means that pretty much everyone makes an effort to be polite, if not downright pleasant. What is more, Walmart’s customer base simply reflects America’s working-class culture, increasingly vulgarized as are yuppies (not to mention academics), but still mostly made up of hardworking citizens I would trust long before any urban liberal.
A central reason for that trust is also, I think, a reason for Walmart’s continuing success. The way Walmart avoids insulting its customers is to avoid the worst excesses of “cutting-edge” trendy culture and to give normal American customers what they actually want—thereby reflecting what is left of middle-American values. I brought my family to Virginia for the weekend, and as I waited in the ever-long line to purchase a few things, I heard my teenagers singing a Veggie-tales tune. This blast from their younger past was courtesy of the book-display at check out, which included a number of religious works including, of course, Veggie Tales. I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw anything Christian displayed so prominently in any store that was not itself overtly Christian. But Walmart was happy to sell what its customers want.
Toys gathered on shelves according to gender as well as age, so parents can find the right items for the right kids. Christian books. Christmas ornaments and cards that actually mention Christ. Even Christmas music that mentions Christ. I am quite certain many readers of other online journals (though not the good people of The Imaginative Conservative) would sneer or even become agitated at such retrograde merchandising. But that is precisely my point. These are what normal Americans expect. To tell your customers, “no we do not have any Christmas cards that mention Christ”—as a clerk at a different store told my wife some time back—is to tell them that their faith is not only unwelcome on public property, but unwelcome at your store as well. Advertising campaigns that push various political and cultural programs, from same-sex marriage to green energy, may seem obviously good to advertisers and corporate managers, but guess what? Not all of us agree. Some stores can get away with insulting the opinions of tens of millions of Americans, or so they think. But then all too many advertisers and owners think that only a tiny minority of toothless bigots disagree with their opinions on such matters. And that simply is not true.
Not all the attacks on working-class Americans are cultural. Some are economic. Sadly, Walmart has engaged in this assault by exporting manufacturing jobs and importing workers. Americans are waking up to this assault and to the fact that both parties are aiding and abetting it. Thus, the dilemma and contradiction that is Donald Trump.
But the more dangerous assault remains cultural. Far too many working Americans feel unwelcome in neighborhoods and stores they actually could afford because the “good, liberal” messages being sent are insulting. Among the many ugly things put up in Charlottesville, Virginia in recent years is a sign reading “historic, green, diverse.” The message was driven home during a short stay there: Charlottesville is a once-nice place that has been taken over by pretentious oafs who believe that anyone who does not share their leftwing political vision is unworthy of consideration, let alone respect. The message sent to the people whose paychecks are taxed for those solar panels and diversity programs is that they are not wanted in that town.
Sadly, few towns these days actually want working-class people, preferring to chase after the few techies they believe will make them look more “upscale.” Towns pay a price for this snobbishness. Retailers do, and should, pay a higher and more immediately recognizable price when they make paying customers feel like aliens in a hostile land. Would that their owners and advertising executives stop preening long enough to recognize the effect their posing is having, if not on the spirits of their customers, then at least on their own bottom line.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.