Today's Wall Street Journal has a long article (subscription required) sounding the death-knell of the Wal-Mart Era.
Today ... Wal-Mart's influence over the retail universe is slipping. In fact, the industry's titan is scrambling to keep up with swifter rivals that are redefining the business all around it. It can still disrupt prices, as it did last year by cutting some generic prescriptions to $4. But success is no longer guaranteed.I seem to be late to the party. I started shopping at Wal-Mart only last year, when it built a store at the abandoned Carolina Circle Mall property.
Rival retailers lured Americans away from Wal-Mart's low-price promise by offering greater convenience, more selection, higher quality, or better service. Amid the country's growing affluence, Wal-Mart has struggled to overhaul its down-market, politically incorrect image while other discounters pitched themselves as more upscale and more palatable alternatives. The Internet has changed shoppers' preferences and eroded the commanding influence Wal-Mart had over its suppliers.
As a result, American shoppers are increasingly looking for qualities that Wal-Mart has trouble providing.
I suppose I should hate Wal-Mart, as even the Journal admits that it helped erode Main Street America, and it doesn't pay its employees very well (but neither does Target, I hear).
But I really like going to the Cone Boulevard Wal-Mart, for a lot of reasons. Price is one of them; we buy packaged staples and dairy there for the prices and buy meat, eggs, and produce from the Farmers' Market for the quality.
But price isn't the only thing. The Cone store is like a party, even if you're there at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night. And the shoppers there make me feel a little better about my side of town, which is usually in the news only for crime, drugs, and prostitution. The people I see at Wal-Mart look like happy families -- for some reason, group shopping is the norm -- who are enjoying each other and buying stuff they need at low prices. It seems to make them feel good, and their presence shows me that even the "bad" side of town is mostly populated by nice, good people.
I think a lot of these people are inhabitants of John Edwards's "Other America," and this Wal-Mart is their town square. No other retailer or grocer was willing to build a store for them: not Target, not Costco, not Harris-Teeter, not even Food Lion.
So hate Wal-Mart if you like, but stop by the store on Cone sometime and ask the people who work and shop there if they'd like to see their Wal-Mart go away. I think I know what they'll tell you.