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.