Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Where America Shops--Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart may already have my soul. It's probably my second favorite place to shop (after the immortal Costco, subject of my last blog).

What is impressive about Wal-Mart is that the prices are incredibly low and you don't have to purchase "big box" quantities of everything to get a good price. But there are a few things that stand out about Wal-Mart, both in "good" and "bad" ways, which are:

  • So many overweight people love to shop at Wal-Mart--I can't think of anywhere else I have shopped where there are so many people with weights in the high 200 pound and up range. One would almost think that there is a weight requirement to walk into a Wal-Mart. (Take that, you skinny b___s, few of whom I have ever seen in a Wal-Mart). Men with their bellies hanging out under their T-shirts, and women with gigantic arms and bubbling behinds in their tucked-in purple stretch pants provide a truly startling visual vibe. You would think that consuming about five donuts or more is a requirement for walking into a Wal-Mart. Anyway, if you ever feel the ground shaking the next time you visit a Wal-Mart in California, don't worry about an earthquake: it's just the floor boards creaking under the cumulative weight of all of the oversize Wal-Mart customers.

  • So many Wal-Mart shoppers have tattoos--When you visit one of these fine establishments, it's hard to not find somebody who has tattoos: old people, teenagers, young women, middle-aged women, people in the military, college kids, everywhere you look, you see tattoos. I am probably biased against tattoos based on my age and religion (Jews are not supposed to wear tattoos, although exceptions have been made for Holocaust survivors, since, unlike the rest of tattoo wearers, they can truly say that getting their skin used like a portable etch-a-sketch machine was not their idea.) Tattoos for men? Even though I don't like them, I do get the macho factor, that getting a tattoo shows that you survived Iraq, Afghanistan, working for George Bush, being a teacher in the public school system, etc, etc. But for women, I have the visceral yecch factor. Too often as I see an attractive young woman walk by, I am thinking about how great she looks and then.....there goes the rose tattoo strategically placed just above her rear. Or, there is the little red star on the back of her otherwise dainty-looking neck. And then......drum roll....the award for the multiple ugly turn-off factor goes to....women who have gigantic snake tattoos on their arms or legs. Somewhere in America I can just picture the guy who has taken a woman home on a date, he thinks he is going to "go all the way," he takes her upstairs and then, before the magic moment, he sees two gigantic snakes with gigantic red fangs on her thighs...Then, after failure hits, she says, "OK, that's alright honey, maybe you're just tired tonight," and he says, "I just don't get it. I don't know what has gotten into me tonight." (What he should say is, "How do you expect me to perform when those two gigantic snarling cobras on your legs are waiting to dig their shiny teeth into my ____________and strangle my b___s until they look like raisins!)

  • Is it good to love such a "bad" company?--We have all heard about all of the terrible things Wal-Mart does to a large collection of people: Sweatshop labor--People work overseas in sweatshops to make clothes sold by Wal-Mart for the same amount of money per day that we Americans leave as a tip in a cheap restaurant. Unions:fuhgedaboutit, Norma Rae, take a hike, Sally Field, no, we don't really like you. Medical plans for Wal-Mart employees: I hate to even think about it. They probably either have to put with no medical care at all, or a PPO plan where the deductible is equal to your first child, or an HMO plan where they get doctors who went to medical school in Guatamela and are being paid about $10 a day for the right to let you rot in their office for hours waiting for them to take a look at you. And so on...And yet, look how well Wal-Marts do, even in our crummy economy. They get loads of shoppers, especially people who look like they are not exactly high-earning Yuppie scum. They employ tons of people around the world. A Wal-Mart comes to your local shopping center and boom, what a difference. There is a mall in my area which used to be moribund, until the Wal-Mart showed up. Now, the mall parking lots are usually full, even far away from the Wal-Mart, as shoppers come out of nowhere to spend their money, and keep the other stores, next to the Wal-Mart, doing well in their businesses. As we know, including those of us who never suffered through an economics course, once consumers spend money, it enables other consumers to be employed, which in turn leads to more consumers spending money, and so on.

Maybe, as the character Gordon Gecko said in the movie, Wall Street: "Greed is good." At least as far as Wal-Mart goes. And for all of the bad things that Wal-Mart does, its customers are buying "stuff," as Thomas Friedman says in his columns, not just risky ideas, such as reverse credit swaps, derivatives, and similar products that brought America, and the entire world economic system, to its knees.

Somebody out there is planning the next Wal-Mart right now, a gigantic institution which will make "stuff", and thus employ thousands of people, or sell "stuff" to the millions of consumers of American products around the world, to help accentuate the economic recovery we are all craving. Whoever it is, go for it. America needs you!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Where America Shops--Costco

I'd like to say a few words about shopping at Costco, one of my favorite places to visit (and where I regularly spend a high percentage of my income). Outside of having such a great selection of products at great prices (provided you are willing to fill your residence top to bottom with huge quantities of toilet paper, paper plates, plastic trash bags, et al.), it is hard to match the excitement that is offered by this fine establishment.

Excitement? What can be exciting about going to Costco? Plenty, as follows:

  • Can you successfully wheel your cart away from the store and into the parking lot, to where your car is located? Not always an easy task, based on my personal experience. One day I was leaving the Costco, which in my area, requires navigating past the teeming hordes snacking at the covered picnic tables and around the starving folks waiting in line for Hebrew National hot dogs (which, as we know, are God's personal favorites, although they are not kosher). Anyway, I was just entering the parking lot area, when I saw a white Cadillac, driven by an old white guy, heading rapidly in my direction. I glanced in the driver's eyes, and saw, unfortunately, a blank stare, signifying that he did not see me. I was already in his path, and, he was, literally, a few feet away, so I pushed myself away from the cart, and, he (barely) missed hitting me, and collided with my cart. The eggs that I had piled on top of the cart fell to the ground and broke. The driver then stopped and asked me if I was OK, and I signified that I was, and he offered to pay for any destroyed items, which fortunately, was limited to the $2.00 eggs that were broken. Then, incredibly, a couple of bystanders ignored me, even though I was clearly freaked about the whole thing, since I just missed serious injury, and they asked the old codger if he was OK. Unbelievable. Anyway, the moral of the story is when you enter a parking lot near a Costco and you see a car moving in your direction, pretend that you are in New York City, not Southern California; in other words, they are not going to stop for you, so assume that they are going to hit you.

  • Avoiding collisions in the bumper car derby in the parking lot--Costco, like most successful American businesses, does its best to maximize customer access to its stores, so all of the Costcos that I have visited have the parking lot rows placed with only minimal space between them. So, the result is there are countless near misses in the parking lot nearly every time I visit a Costco. Today was typical: I waited while an SUV in front of me was stationary, waiting for somebody to leave his parking space next to the store entrance. The SUV blotted out my sight lines and I could not really tell who its occupants were waiting for. I saw one car on the left back up, then go forward again, then back up again, then go forward again, and then...nothing. I guess that they were just perfecting their parking technique. Then, I saw a car in the front row on the right start backing up, to the left. Then on the left side, I saw a car in the third row on the left start backing up, at the same time. And then, to my surprise, I saw a car in front of me, on the right, start backing up out of his parking place. I honked at him to stop, but he did not hear me, and then he missed hitting me....by a few feet. The ending was happy, since everyone was able to either get out of their parking place, or get into a parking place, without any collisions or injuries. Yes, life is a game of inches.

  • Lining up to get free samples--This is perhaps the most rewarding sporting event at Costco, since, as my late brother David put it, if you do things right, you can have an entire meal at Costco by trying out the samples. The way that people do everything short of jousting for position gives the impression that those who are lining up have not eaten for a week. However, judging by the ample waistlines of those I see in line, most people that line up for samples probably have not eaten for five minutes, or less. It can also be quite suspenseful as people lick their lips in anticipation, watching as the food server first cooks the food in a microwave oven, then takes out the food, cuts it into acceptable portions, and then puts it out for the starving hordes to enjoy. I have frequently have been in the position of being second in line, for about four portions, with only one person in front of me, and then, as I get ready to reach for my sumptuous burrito slice, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, as the person in front of me grabs four portions, hands two to his obese six year old, one to their rather well-fed wife, and grabs the last one for themselves, leaving me to merely salivate and dream of the one that got away. Just like reaching for the American dream: oh so close but ever so far away.... No problem though: the solution is to walk up to another counter, where something that the masses don't covet, like strawberry sorbet, is being offered, and take one for oneself, and then, just to get even with Mr. Greedy who took four pieces for himself a few moments ago, you come back and go for seconds. (Oliver Twist is dead, so you don't even have to say, "Please Sir, may I have some more?")The best part of all this is that the hapless Costco employee will start on their spiel about how this fatty cholesterol-laden product is good for you , and, they will continue on their dissertation long after you have walked away, and end up talking to the air about a product that probably few people would ever eat...unless someone offered it to them for free.
You've got to love it. Shop 'til you drop!