Wal-Mart and the Filling Station Theory

In the past month I have been to Wal-Mart here in Charlottetown three times. This is almost more times than I have been to Wal-Mart, ever. And after a decade of deep “Wal-Mart is evil” feeling, I’ve come around. I understand Wal-Mart and, while I can’t say I like it, I’ve become a contented Wal-Mart customer, and I’ll be back.

Here is what Wal-Mart understands that others do not: shopping in this century is like going to the gas station. We go, we fill up, we leave. We don’t need an “event.” We don’t need coupons or sales or loyalty programs. We don’t want to dress up. We don’t want to make a night of it. Shopping is refueling. That’s it.

Much of the rest of the retail world still treats shopping as some sort of entertainment activity, as if we consumers take great pride in hitching up the wagon, getting dressed up, and making a day of it in the city. That’s simply not the way things work anymore, and Wal-Mart understands that.

In this way, Wal-Mart is in the same class as airlines like JetBlue, JetsGo and Southwest, airlines that understand that we now treat flying more like taking the bus than taking an ocean liner. Old-line airlines like Air Canada and American seem to still feel that air travel needs to “have a production made out of it.” And what’s really sad is that even as they think this, they’ve pared back their service to the point where the new independents actually offer more service.

Compare Wal-Mart to an old-line retailer like Zellers. Wal-Mart offers excellent selection, good service, clean, well-lit stores, and quick checkout. Zellers, despite years of trying, is still held back by less selection, non-existent service, stores with products tumbling into the aisles, and a checkout that seems to take at least 15 minutes no matter the time of day. Imagine if you had to wait 15 minutes to pay for gas.

Many complain that Wal-Mart has ripped the hell out of downtowns across North America. And they are right. But perhaps if the small, local retailers that tumbled in Wal-Mart’s wake had seen this new retail reality, and reacted to it, they wouldn’t had disappeared as they did. It’s not pleasant, but it’s true.


Eaglethorpe Martini's picture
Eaglethorpe Martini on February 4, 2003 - 04:46 Permalink

Wal-mart does it well, I agree. It makes downtown redundant, like MP3’s make record stores redundant.
In Oxford, NS, ten years ago I noticed people living in mainstreet former shops. Thier TV’s flickering in the vacant windows was eerey. Imagine the irony when Walmart ad’s played on the TV.
I wish downtown was all cafe’s, museums, galleries, restaurants and hobby stores. Oh yeah, and prostitutes in windows (male and female), seriously, that would be my favorite downtown.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on February 4, 2003 - 05:05 Permalink

The second commercial irony here is that the coffee shops of Charlottetown appear to assume that they exist to be coffee filling stations whereas the trend in North America (and the world, for that matter) is for coffee shops to exist as a sort of community living room. I don’t know how they do it, but even the most laid-back coffee shops in Charlottetown manage to make one feel guilty for staying around too long; must be something they pump out with the air. I figure if you’re in the coffee business you either go toe to toe with Tim Hortons (which *is* a filling station), or you go way, way the other way. Need an example? Next time you go into Beanz, on University Ave., listen to the music they’re playing: it’s right off the CBC Galaxie service, and is music designed to eradicate rather than enliven.

Ken's picture
Ken on February 4, 2003 - 05:22 Permalink

Man! I was in Ctown last week, and this woman behind me kept looking at her watch, and fretting while they made my delicious greek salad and turkey sandwich. She axed me if it’s slower since the name change? Huh? I sad to the impatient woman, oh ya, they changed their name — it takes more time to say the new name I said. Huh? she said.
We were on very different wave lengths, her and I, and so I smiled and stared at the menu on the wall.

Leo's picture
Leo on February 4, 2003 - 12:31 Permalink

I think there are some important considerations that are
neglected in our discussion of where and how we buy items
in our society. I think these issues are important to be asked about all national chains as well as local stores.
I do think that the “Walmartization” of our society has contributed to the destruction of downtowns throughout much of United States and now Canada. This was done to avoid paying taxes toward these municipalities used for schools and other public services. Questions about Walmart’s union busting tactics, their purchase of goods from countries like Burma (where some retailers respect
an international boycott against the anti democratic regime), its push to “roll back prices” at the expense of their employees as well as contributing to sweatshop and child labour worldwide — the lowest price has many hidden costs — other retailers have the same issues to deal with but Walmart certainly has been leading the field in this area in completely being at odds with efforts to have codes of conduct with real teeth in this arena  — it was named sweatshop retailer in the year last year. Please talk to the employees who work in many of these chain stores and you will realize that they are paid extremely low wages — I think we have been led by advertising and other means to ignore these very real issues which should
guide us in purchasing any product. The stranglehold by Walmart’s and others is certainly fuelled by those purchasing items who themselves are paid increasingly lower wages themselves — quite ironic when we see that the only prosperous mass retailers are those who cater to the lower end of the market and those elite retailers for those at teh top-the middlebrow retailers are the ones disappearing , like those in the middle themselves who are squeezed to the bottom.

Alan's picture
Alan on February 4, 2003 - 13:12 Permalink

Well said, Leo. Dehumanization is efficient and profitable but so…dehumanizing. I look forward to the day that the Walmarts start fail like those impossible business failures such as Eaton’s. There is something so junior high about the way you are told that you are saving, that the chain implies if we don’t have it you don’t need it and how the whole place stinks of McPigs. Plus the kids section is an orgy of toys linked to movies or TV shows. Crapmart.

Dave Moses's picture
Dave Moses on February 4, 2003 - 13:14 Permalink

peter. i don’t believe what you said, nor do i believe that you believe it either.

Alan's picture
Alan on February 4, 2003 - 14:50 Permalink

I love Dave’s posts. So hazy. So hard to get his point.

J's picture
J on February 4, 2003 - 15:38 Permalink

Hah,. That’s what she said!

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on February 4, 2003 - 17:17 Permalink

Why do we continue to believe in this myth of the small, local, downtown store that pays its employees well, only buys politically correct union-made goods, houses itself in a well-maintained heritage building, prices items at a level that’s fair, and so on? Do such places actually exist outside of Mickey Rooney movies? And even if they did exist, who would shop there?

Alan's picture
Alan on February 4, 2003 - 17:24 Permalink

Why flip flop at the extremes — if it doesn’t meet all your characteristis, need we then bow on knee to mammon? There are plenty of local places to buy the things you can get at Walmart without watching that much of your money leave town.

Justin's picture
Justin on February 5, 2003 - 03:02 Permalink

Bahh, harumph…
The Great Evil, Walmart, is no different than any other retailer. They’re just larger and less annoying. They could pay better wages if they upped their margin, but that won’t put more money in a sweat-shop worker’s pocket, and they don’t have to because local retailers likewise usually pay the lowest legal minimum if possible, so for store employees no-one pays much of a wage… not the “Walmartses and Zellerses, nor the Bar ‘n Grilleses and Dave’s Caveses” of the world. So Walmart attracts employees here because they do offer a competitive wage, and attract customers with low prices and loads of selection. It don’t matter what store you buy the widjets they offer, sweatshop workers don’t earn a penny more if you spend more at a different store. All retailers pay as little as possible for merchandise and wages, keep as little stock as is possible, and charge as much markup as possible.
WalMart does something that that is good for P.E.I.: Until WalMart Canada opened stores in Charlottetown and then Summerside, we had an outflux of P.E.I. economy travelling to Moncton to shop at um ahh, wait — it’s on the tip of my tongue… WALMART!!! Our ecomomy has improved because of Walmart. Quite the opposite of small-town USA.
And another thing (I love saying that), “We’re none of us gonna pay more for the same thing that costscha less somewheres else”. We’re all “gilty” (ooh, I do love a good pun).
Thus my rant ends (with me ducking tomatoes and cowering behind my pulpit.)

Darin Foulkes's picture
Darin Foulkes on February 5, 2003 - 12:13 Permalink

The only times that I venture into the Anal-Mart is after I’ve been around town searching for an item, and retailers tell me “Oh, likely Wal-Mart will have it.” And yes, they do, like the Beyblade Arenas at Christmastime.

On each and every visit (I’ve been there about 10 times), I must agree, the “filling station” is working. The lineups are never 15-minutes. However, when I’m leaving, I always take a look at the Customer Service Counter (a.k.a. return-your-junk-here counter), and see a much longer lineup of very unhappy shoppers. I, in turn, glance at my purchases, of which I agree are not worth returning if they, too, turn out to be crap.

Andrew Chisholm's picture
Andrew Chisholm on February 5, 2003 - 15:33 Permalink

My cousin was a night stocker at Walmart here in Charlottetown last summer. He was making $7.50 an hour + stock options… Nothing wrong with that.

I think the trend of downtowns is moving toward office buildings and not little retail shops… A viable downtown should not even feel a dent when a store like Walmart opens up across town… Charlottetown’s downtown retail sector is not very viable at the moment but the office sector is strongly growing. One replaces the other.

dave moses's picture
dave moses on February 5, 2003 - 19:41 Permalink

Well all get the retail we deserve, eventually.

Lana's picture
Lana on February 5, 2003 - 21:30 Permalink

Office spaces need foodcourts and consultants and people to fix all of their freaking computers when they knock coffee all over their drab, cookie crumb infested keyboards. Let’s not forget that a city full of working women need pantyhose and lots of them and good shoes and etc etc etc.

An office complex does not make a downtown — and, if you think it does, then you can come work in freaking Hull and see how lovely it is. *sarcasm intended*

Homer Bombeck's picture
Homer Bombeck on February 6, 2003 - 14:14 Permalink

In order for all of your downtown dreams to come true, we need more “good earners” and big thinkers to choose to live there, rather than in Stratford or Cornwall or Sherwood or Stanhope. It speaks volumes about the downtown when bootleggers and their patrons outnumber hifalutin internet cafes and their hip intelligentsia.

Justin's picture
Justin on February 7, 2003 - 03:21 Permalink

Did you ever notice that WalMart sells Canadian made RTA furniture, while it’s Canadian Trade Competitor sells American made RTA furniture?
Burns my bunson, that.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on February 7, 2003 - 21:07 Permalink

Sherwood was a lovely community until, in the supposed interest of “serving you better”(again), it was assimilated by the lumbering, distant, black-hole juggernaut of Charlottetown.

You can have your coffee snobs and exclusive, exotic foodservice industry in a dying downtown. What business can afford to offer extended daycare for mucky-mucks engaged in idle chit-chat? Give me a hot Tims and Maid Marian Wed. special anyday.

Anita's picture
Anita on March 23, 2003 - 13:35 Permalink

Hi Everyone,

I was reading through these comments and have a couple of thoughts…firstly, most comments are from men( with the exception of one or two) and I wonder how many of you go out and buy the groceries, clothes, footwear, birthday & Christmas presents and whatever else comes with the responsibility of raising a family. (P.S.- now you can’t be wondering around doing this alone, to make it count you have to have three kids in tow and you have to be rushing home from work or to the party or making your millionth trip to the rink, pool, theatre, friends house …NOT YOURS!! or some other event you have neatly balnce in your evening after supper & homework.) Now guys,I don’t mean that one time you went 3 months ago, because your wife ragged at you for never doing the shopping, but rather the four nights a week you have to go because you inevitably forgot something. Of course you could argue that I should be more organized, and for the one percent of the population who is, I worship you! You are who I was going to be before I had children! Now don’t get me wrong the downtown stores certainly have there place. I totally loved that $220.00 sweater I saw in the window when I was rushing by to deposit my grocery money…oops I mean paycheck in the bank. I’m sure someone will love it. Now don’t get me wrong, when that $220.00 sweater goes on sale in May for 75% of I’m your girl I’ll be waiting out side that door with the other 99% of the population waiting to get a piece of the old world life.

And on that note… Thank God for one stop shopping!!!!
Cheers Anita

Wayne's picture
Wayne on March 23, 2003 - 15:14 Permalink

This sounds sexist to me…

Kevin's picture
Kevin on March 23, 2003 - 21:52 Permalink

Anita I salute you for putting in a paragraph what thousands of women face every day of the week. I think Peter’s original point was essentially that box stores do respond to the facts of many busy lives like your’s. Well said — retailers who wish to live “down town”, take note. If you can’t get the Anita’s of the world into your stores you’ve a difficult path unless the economy stays very good.