Confessions of a Walmart Shopper

I never intended to shop at Walmart. Ever. After all, Sam Walton and family represented all I was raised to sneer at.

They are well known for stomping out freedom of speech by snatching “offensive” artists such as Sheryl Crow off their abundant shelves and banning any books they deem unfit for popular consumption, including Jon Stewart’s America: The Book.

They are anti-abortion, fund Republicans, trade in firearms, take over towns and squash out the little guy while at the same time Walmartising every quaint village in the process.

Then, of course, there is the well-documented and heinous exploitation of their workers, of which reams have been written, filmed and researched. Crossing over, through its sliding glass doors and over its pale linoleum tiles into its florescent world of glowing consumerism would betray all I believed in. It was just not going to happen. Until it did.

I was visiting my mother in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 2008, when it became unavoidable.

I needed to pack my books, which had sat in a storeroom on my mother’s property for three years. The cardboard boxes were giving way to damp and without intervention, my books were on their way to transforming to a lumpy mass of pulp. I told my brother’s ex-girlfriend — let’s call her a People of Walmart shopper (please see — about my need for plastic crates.

“Go to Walmart,” the People of Walmart shopper advised. “Cheapest place you can get ’em.” “I don’t really shop at Walmart,” I said, with no small amount of indignation. “I’ll try Costco.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, shrugging.

“Welcome to Walmart!”
I went to a few of California’s big box stores — Costco, Home Depot and Target — and then came home and called Walmart, just to prove the ex wrong. Turns out she was right. They were the cheapest. By more than $5 a go. And I needed 20 crates. That was $100 — at the time nearly R900 — I’d be out, purely on principle. So I shoved principle in my back pocket, put on some dark sunglasses and drove over to get the goods.

A surge of guilt shot through my limbs as the doors whooshed open and a greeter in blue shouted out “Welcome to Walmart!” I felt as though I had just walked into a Michael Moore doccie (just pick one — Walmart stars in both Bowling for Columbine and his most recent, Capitalism: A Love Story). I hunched over and squinted to hide myself better.

The ceilings were high, like an airport hangar, and the brightness hurt my eyes, even at half-mast. The smell of pretzels and pepperoni pizza wafted across the entrance hall and into the clothing section, which sprawled in an endless offering of the cheap and nasty. I tried not to be distracted by the garden supplies, books and CDs, television sets and office stationery, the bureaus and tables and chairs and dry goods, knick-knacks and stuffed animals.

I was there for the plastic crates and I would not support the Walton family in their further exploitation of people and cheap goods.

But the crates were not the cheap sort. They were the good ones, nice and sturdy. I held them with admiration and awe: how did they manage to get them so much cheaper than everyone else? I packed 20 of them on my oversized shopping cart and manoeuvred through the People of Walmart, determined not to buy any other item, even if — wow, look at that, $1,50 for a huge bottle of Johnson’s baby powder. No, I pulled my arms in and headed for the checkout. I took a deep breath as I left the store, my sunglasses back on my face, scanning the parking lot for any old friends who might see me as they left the Starbucks next door.

I tossed the crates in the back of my mother’s car. The next day I began to transfer my books into the new crates and soon realised I had to go back. I needed five more.

Like any dirty addiction, it was easier the second time around.

I went in, got my crates and went straight for the checkout. Before I knew it, though, I found myself lingering next to the cosmetics section to see what else — other than the supersize $1,50 baby powder — I could get. It turned out quite a lot.

Everything was cheaper at Walmart: nail polish remover, lip moisturiser, body lotions, cotton swabs. I moved to the medicine section. The huge bottle of ibuprophen cost less than the cheapest I had ever seen in my life. And the toothpaste? How could they even make a profit at this price? I loaded up my cart before I could come to the conclusion — exploitation of the worker — and made my way out before guilt entirely consumed me.

During my two-week stay in California, I went back three more times. I kept telling myself that it was an experiment, research even. Besides, I was leaving, this wasn’t going to go on much longer. I just needed a few more things to take back.

My sister called during my last shopping trip.

“Where are you?” she asked.

When I confessed, my sister, who lives near Berkeley in California — a nuclear-free zone and certainly a Walmart-free zone — was scandalised.

“Are you kidding?” she spat. “Why didn’t you go to Costco?”

Oh, the naivety of those who have not shopped at Walmart. As if you could go somewhere else and get it cheaper.

So, the thing is, I’m rooting for the unions here in South Africa, I really am. I don’t want exploited workers any more than I want exploited consumers. After all, we already have our banks, car manufacturers and cellphone companies that fill that gap so well.

I’m hoping there’s an African solution to the Walmart problem, that they will be allowed to operate here and that the workers will force Walmart to uphold fair labour practices on our terms.

Because — Michael Moore, please forgive me for my sins, but you do not understand what the other retailers have been doing to us here in Africa — I’ll be there on opening day.

With my dark glasses on. And maybe a headscarf or two.

Mail & Guardian, March 28, 2011