What better way to start my blog than by bashing Wal-mart? After all, they are the retail behemoth that people love to hate. I guess it must be jealousy.
I was never in a Sams Club or Wal-mart store until last year, when a Walmart sprung up about 15 minutes from my home. With their reputation for low wages, poor or non-existent employee benefits and brutal business practices, I wasn’t too eager to become a Wal-mart customer. In fact, the rumor around here is that “Sam’s Club” actually refers to the big stick that Sam Walton would use to beat up his suppliers and the competition. They don’t call us Routing by Rumor for nothing. I did want to check them out, however, to see if their prices were really that good. I consider myself a very savvy shopper. OK, I’ll admit it… I’ve now shopped there several times since they opened.
My first impression was that Wal-mart is K-Mart on steroids. (I hate K-Mart, and won’t shop there.) Wal-mart is very similar to Target stores also. Lots of low-end merchandise. Cheap shoes. Cheap clothes. Not cheap as in inexpensive; cheap as in, well, cheap. I think Target tries to position itself as selling somewhat more upscale clothing. I’ll call it “cheap chic”. And don’t forget that K-Mart has (or had) Martha Stewart. I guess we’re talking higher quality made-in-China merchandise.
Wal-mart does sell many staple items at rock-bottom prices, but many other popular items are priced no lower than other retailers. You can do better on many, perhaps most items at most other chains or supermarkets, especially when an item is on sale, and particularly on grocery items. I felt that some of Wal-mart’s private-label food items I tried were of inferior quality, and not a very good value. Kind of ironic, since one of their private-label grocery brands is called “Great Value”.
Prices seem to jump around a lot at Walmart. Their price “roll backs” come and go, and I’ve seen some items, especially on the last few visits, jump 20%, 25%, or more. I think the bottom line is that you save on one item, but give back what you just saved when you pick up the next item and place it in your basket.
Being the geek that I am, I gravitate to the electronics department of any store I find myself in. I found a few bargains there, but in general, you can do much, much better buying stuff online, a la Amazon or ebay. On some really hot items, like Apple iPods, Wal-mart prices are pretty close to MSRP. I’ve found some small local or regional electronics chains that beat Wal-mart’s prices on electronics by 10% or more.
One thing I’ll concede about Wal-mart, though, is that returns are never a hassle. They seem to be much more consumer-friendly with returns than many large retailers are these days. One other thing that you’ll only find at Wal-mart is that they sell the local newspaper for half-price. I’ve never seen anyone discounting a newspaper at the newsstand, much less selling it for half-price. Obviously, it’s a gimmic, but it is a nice little surprise.
They have gotten a lot of good press lately because of their very low prices for generic prescription drugs. They also have excellent prices on their house-branded OTC drugs. I guess these cheap drugs make up in some small way for the otherwise poor health benefits they offer their employees. Then again, if you can’t afford to see a doctor, you can’t get a prescription for the cheap medicine. Another Wal-mart paradox, I suppose.
What surprises me most about Walmart is how many items are out of stock on each shopping trip. I don’t think it’s so much a case of them having a run on many items, as it is a logistical or management problem. I suppose the really talented, experienced retail people don’t apply for jobs at Walmart. That’s not to say that they don’t have good people working there. They do, and I empathize with anybody that works hard and does not get a decent salary and benefits. Is America better off with the Walmarts, Home Depots and other giants that have decimated virtually all of their retail competition? I think not.