American shoppers are on the lookout for bargains. Many find those bargain buys at one of the thousands of Wal Mart stores across the country. WalMart, the world's largest retailer, prides itself on offering the lowest prices on all its products. But many consumers not only refuse to patronize the mega-discount chain, they are actively campaigning against it.
Rapid City's Dahl Arts Center was packed recently for a showing of the documentary film "WAL-MART: The High Cost of Low Price." The documentary examines the company's alleged mistreatment of its employees, from race and sex discrimination to the squalid working conditions in the Asian factories that produce many of Walmart's goods.
But the filmmaker also included frequent images of abandoned small town stores and empty streets… highlighting the discount giant's impact on small businesses across America. And that was the primary concern of most of the 200 or so people in the audience. As one woman noted, "They're gonna bring a second one here in Rapid City,and we should try and do something about that, because family businesses, you see everywhere, are going down and I, yeah, I really dislike Wal Mart."
A man in the audience pointed out that Wal Mart has become the biggest corporation in the world. "It has phenomenal power, phenomenal reach...and, basically, is transforming our whole society. And we have very little control over what's going on. We need to wake up and take note or we're not gonna have what we have always had."
Someone else admitted, "I've always kind of had a hard time with Wal Mart's business practices, and I...I feel like it reflects a lot on us as a community if we would let them come here. I mean maybe people know, but if they know, they don't know how bad it is."
Opinions about "how bad it is" run the gamut from low wages and high-cost health insurance to the use of child labor in China. Cody Pesicka is a small business owner in Hot Springs, South Dakota. He's says he's concerned about all of these issues but, like many small town residents, his primary focus is on Wal Mart's impact on businesses in his community. "You can just kind of tell how corporate hurts a small business owner. People come in all the time and say, you know, we bought this at Wal Mart at such-and-such a price. And you kind of struggle to make a dollar on a product, compared to when they can go to Wal Mart and buy it."
One hour south of Hot Springs is the equally small town of Chadron, Nebraska. Patricia Giesler's family has owned a discount clothing store here for more than 80 years. Wal Mart "came into town" 6 years ago, and, she says, "a lot of people when they heard they were coming into Chadron decided to just go ahead and close their businesses, 'cause they knew it would be the eventual thing down the road. It has taken the smaller businesses that were fringe businesses to begin with and it's pretty much collapsed them and gone under."
Her family's business has managed to survive in spite of competition from Wal Mart, and what some might call an 'uneven playing field.' Patricia Giesler says she really resents the substantial tax breaks that local governments offer to encourage the discount chain to open a store in their community, welcoming the jobs it provides. "They were given a tax incentive of $500,000." She shakes her head in amazement. "Our store's been here 80 years and we've never been offered anything like that from our own community."
Calls to Wal Mart Corporation on the issue were not returned. But according to Gary Taylor, an economics professor at South Dakota State University, the discount chain's impact on any community is simply one of the stark realities of capitalism. "We're a capitalist society and generally, we look at, 'well, who can do things most efficiently at the lowest cost?' And currently, Wal Mart is doing a better job at that than other businesses. You know, Wal Mart still does employ people and generally they don't really pay that much less than what people were getting in the other jobs. There's a lot of other small businesses also don't provide health benefits and those are not really the highest paying jobs in town either."
Whether they like having a WalMart in town or not, most locals shop there, often because there's nowhere else to go for many items. Some, like Chadron resident Velinda Malone, see the corporation's arrival as a mixed blessing. "I believe they hurt some small businesses, [but] I've seen a lot more businesses coming to town because of Wal Mart."
In the end, Wal Mart's impact on small businesses across America may come down to what the individual consumer decides is more important - supporting community based businesses or saving money at mega-sales.