The Mom-and-Pop Store vs. Walmart

Is this situation familiar to you?

You are hanging out with a liberal friend, maybe at your local fair-trade coffee shop. Another friend you’ve been waiting for shows up late because he or she had to stop at the store and pick up something.

You: “Hey [Late friend’s name…probably Bill or something], did you get what you needed?”

Late Friend: “Yeah, I actually got it at Walmart. I was so happy, they had exactly what I needed, and for a reasonable price to-boot!”

The mood in the room changes faster than Walmart’s Smiley Face Man’s ever-shrinking prices. Things become tense.  The furrowed brow of your “progressive” friend (probably named something like “Shane” or “Colton”) alerts you to his dissatisfaction.

Oh why, oh why, did Bill have to bring up Walmart?

Liberal Friend: “Actually…”

Here we go…

Liberal Friend: “Actually, you know, I’m kind of, like, against the corporatization of America. Yeah, I think we should just need to get back to localized economies. We should be supporting mom-and-pop stores that get pushed out by wealthy corporations. I’m surprised those of you who are all for small government love corporation domination so much.”

Alright, now before parsing some of the issues we may have with these hypothetical friend’s sentiments, let us do what any serious pseudo-intellectual under the age of 30 ought to: we need to ask ourselves WWSS? (What Would Seinfeld Say?)

The clip involves Kramer accusing George, Elaine and Jerry of being callous “yuppies” who don’t care about their local community like they should. George responds with a famous line in Seinfeld history:

Well, what’s so great about a mom-and-pop store? Let me tell you something, if my mom and pop ran a storeI wouldn’t shop there.

We are laughing.

The Progressives Think They Have a Point

To the untrained eye, there seems to be a contradiction in a free market conservative who preaches the superiority of limited government, de-centralization of powers and charity localization (i.e. churches, neighborhoods, families) while at the same time defending multi-national corporations like Walmart that dominate their respective markets. Things seem even more convoluted if the free-market conservative and his or her liberal chums are all Christians (or even simply “religious”).

Where is compassion to be found in the face of a faceless corporate juggernaut?

Are not more localized markets and businesses better suited to meet the needs of the people and areas they know best? Isn’t it unfair for a neighborhood sporting goods store to have to compete with Dick’s or Sports Authority? Or a local grocer or retailer to compete with the Walmart Supercenter?

Except That They Don’t

But this narrative does not construct a complete picture. Here are a few points to consider:

First, every store starts as a mom-and-pop store. Walmart came from the humble beginnings of a simple man in Arkansas who saved and borrowed just enough money to get his foot in the retailing door. His wife and his father were his business partners. They worked their tails off. They innovated. They put everything on the line financially in hopes that their dream of merely owning a couple of stores would come true. This wasn’t the Rockefellers bank-rolling the entrepreneurial whims of one of their lazy trust-fund babies. This wasn’t Gordon Gekko swooping in to exploit another company’s hard work. It was Sam Walton, his pop and his bride.

Second, we want mom-and-pop stores to grow into corporations. Here is something that inexplicably gets lost in the shuffle of these disagreements far too often. The mom-and-pop store that you love so much in your town has the potential to become a corporation like Walmart. If the local organic donut shop and bakery you so adore cross-country skiing to each winter for fresh-baked scones has a sound business model and high-quality product, eventually they will open another location. The owner of that scone-producing bakery might decide that he loves his “local community” model so much that he wants to bring it to many, many other “local communities” who may appreciate that his menu is handwritten on chalkboards each morning instead of all those “corporate” laminated ones.

Third, and finally (for now): Profits are good things when legally earned. We want mom-and-pop stores to grow so that they open more stores and hire more people. What no one ever talks about when a Walmart moves into a new area is that the job-creation that takes place is on a scale that rural areas do not otherwise see much of these days. That means someone who was not working is now working, and people who were working at a mom-and-pop store have a chance at health insurance. They have the opportunity to earn success in the form of a paycheck from Sam Walton instead of hammering a check from their federal Uncle Sam.

Towns (if not states) are literally “saved” when corporations like Walmart move in—they are equally destroyed when the corporations leave.

Now, corporations, like governments, are run by imperfect people. And the purpose of this short piece is not to discuss the morality of the corporate soul. The purpose of this blog is to respond to that liberal friend who is quick to condemn you for shopping at Walmart. Your friend thinks Walmart preys on mom-and-pop stores?

Have them tell a local shop owner that they should never grow their business. Have them tell a local shop owner to pull back on the reigns of being really good at what they do.

Have them tell Sam and Helen Walton that they were wrong.

  • V&C has the uncanny ability to publish articles that answer questions right as I open my mouth to ask them, and this article is no exception. Well done, Jacque and RJ, I wish I had seen this post before my last “evil Wal-mart” conversation. It reminds me of South Park satirizing this issue in “Something Wal-mart This Way Comes,” I think, but George and yourselves were more eloquent.

    The only constructive criticism I have, if I may, is that I was hoping you would use George a bit more. I understood the point you were making quoting him, but elaborating on what he meant a little bit more would have put the icing on the cake, so to speak. Pop culture references certainly help the issue to become less opaque to us less intellectually inclined, and the more you can flesh out the implicit argument in them, the better.

    Great job guys!

  • Wow! Great write up you guys that was hilarious and very well rationalized. As a former Walmart employee and having friends who’ve managed entire Walmart stores, they are blessing and a curse inside (as an employee) and outside (as a customer). Unfortunately we can’t have our cake and eat it too. The same people that criticize them for putting mom and pops shops out of business are the same people who fill out applications when they lose their job or need extra cash for bills. So, yeah…
  • Excellent article.

    Growing up in Chicago, I have been taught to hate big businesses that don’t hire union workers. We hear “horror” stories about how employees are treated unfairly and WalMart stomps on the dreams of mom and pop shops. I appreciated the basic three points mentioned as I think they provide a clear and simple way to explain why we don’t have to HATE Walmart.

    Sam Walton was a man with excellent values and I really think they permeate throughout his organization. Any corporation that employs 2.2 million people is going to have problems. However, on the whole, Walmart really is trying to help people save money so they can live better.

    Every WalMart store serves its community in a different way. The WalMart in Mukwonago, WI is gorgeous! It is clean and easy to naviagte, giving the people access to goods they would not be able to get otherwise. People of all economic backgrounds shop there. The WalMart in Skokie, IL (just bordering Chicago because we would never let a nonunionized business to come in the city limits) is admittedly not as clean or organized as the Mukwonago store. It serves the poorer community. The wealthier people have no reason to go in and will take business elsewhere.

    We cannot judge our experiences in one store and expand that to all others. Additionally, we can’t hear the complaint of one of the 2.2 million employees and make it the schema for all WalMart employees. The 8500 stores and 2.2 million employees all have different experiences and I wish we heard more from the majority.

  • Anonymous
    So, basically, you’re saying that the liberal friend in your scenario is wrong because Walmart was small at one time, has grown successfully, creates jobs, and generates a profit? I didn’t realize that liberals were arguing that only small, non-profitable businesses that don’t hire anyone were what was necessary in America.

  • Anonymous
    RJ, you know I like you and agree with you on a lot of things. But I have to disagree here. The problem with Wal-Mart isn’t just that they are a giant corporation. It’s that research has shown that when they move into an area, they shut down all other small businesses and they are well-known for mistreating employees and paying them very low wages while organizing their hours so they don’t have to pay for all benefits.

    Also, in many ways it seems that Wal-Mart has sold out. What once was a company that sold a high percentage of American-made products now sells mostly products made in Mexico and China.

    As a fellow commenter stated, they move into town, run many local stores across multiple industries out of business and then those people have to get jobs at Wal-Mart when they used to be business owners. I’m not sure I call that a good thing for entrepreneurial people.

    Yes, Sam Wahl made his own path back in the 50s or so as an entrepreneur using free-market capitalism, but the times and political climates change. Players like Wal-Mart have huge bankrolls and lawyers and lobbyists to basically get whatever they want from federal, state, and local governments while skirting around the areas that they don’t want (such as employee benefits, healthcare, etc.).

    It sounds like you are saying that since Wal-Mart grew through free-market capitalism that they can’t change over the years and become corrupt by bending the laws though lobbyist force and exploiting employees that don’t have other employment options, but the point is that they can and probably have.

  • Anonymous
  • Professor Mitarashi

    I would rather hear about what Sam and Helen have to say about how their company is run

  • tobyw

    Business is about creating value and selling it to the customer for a profit.

  • Susan Cavanaugh

    Kind of hard since he’s passed away else I would….

  • Susan Cavanaugh

    Towns are destroyed when big corps leave because people moved there after the big corps moved in for the jobs. Thus, when the corps move out, then all of those people are jobless.

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