Friday, March 19, 2010

Wal*Mart -- Tough Love

As a Vermonter and a “buy local” advocate, I’ve always had a dislike of Wal*Mart. Their politics are too red, their treatment of employees is less than stellar, and their gaffes (firing a guy for medical marijuana - telling all “black people” to leave the store) just don’t seem to stop. The company, worth more than many smaller nations of the world, has centers and stores in virtually any city of size in the U.S. That’s bad news for downtowns and small merchants -- it’s good news for travelers.

Yes, having spent two months on the road, I have a new appreciation of the attractiveness of this giant corporation. I’ve blown dust off cans of vegetables in small groceries, been appalled at the lack of healthy food -- even whole wheat bread -- and struggled to find spare parts in local hardware stores. On the other hand, with Wal*Mart, which is everywhere, we can get Cabot Cheese and Stonyfield yogurt in Texas or Louisiana, find Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and fresh produce, and use clean restrooms. They layouts are fairly standard so you know right away where the auto parts are, where the pet food is, and don’t have to orient yourself each time just to find skim milk.
Another big issue is parking -- when you are pulling an Airstream, the expansive parking lots are welcome. Wal*Mart, to their credit, allows RV’s to park overnight. This is a big deal when you are traveling and just needing a safe place to rest for a bit. Sure, you deal with bright lights and traffic noise but it’s safe, free, and available all over the country.

It is depressing to see roadsides and fields littered with white plastic bags -- many of them from Wal*Mart. As a birdwatcher, more than once I’ve spotted a white object in a tree, on a cactus, on a body of water -- and of course, it’s not a cattle egret or snowy egret -- it’s trash. Wal*Mart adds to the problem through their "bag everything that isn't walking" approach although one could argue that people who litter will toss whatever container/bag they have.

So, back in Vermont, we will buy our coffee from Capitol Grounds in Montpelier, our meat from the local co-op, and shop locally for essentially everything. But we now have a new appreciation, whether we like to admit it or not, for the cleanliness, the lower prices, and the good inventory of the ubiquitous Wal*Mart network. They will likely be key elements of our future road travel -- outside Vermont.
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