This column, presented in its entirety, originally appeared in The Jambalaya News in two parts on September 24 and October 8, 2009.
One evening last week, my wife offered to make a deal with me. She said that she would cook my favorite supper if I’d agree to go to the Wal-Mart and do some shopping for her. And since I knew she wasn’t going to be serving me beer and pretzels, I knew that meant I was going to have spaghetti. That was a hard one for me to turn down, not so much because of the spaghetti, but more because it gave me a chance to stock up on beer and pretzels and charge it against the grocery budget rather than my own personal allowance.
She hasn’t caught on to this ploy yet. Someday I’m sure she will. After all, I think she missed her calling in life to be a Securities and Exchange Commission Investigator, but at least for now I’m in the clear.
As you know, Wal-Mart is the most popular store in the country. I believe that this popularity is not just due to the great values available in the store, and they do have Great Values. If you can’t tell from the price tags, it’s written prominently on the packages of all the store-brand items.
No, in addition to the Great Values, I think that Wal-Mart’s immense popularity is due to the wonderful experience people have shopping there. I’ll walk you through my own experience of the other evening to illustrate this point.
Every Wal-Mart shopping experience begins, of course, in the parking lot. It is here where you search endlessly in the wide expanse to find an available parking space. This is not necessarily because there are a lot of cars, but rather, it seems that most of the spaces are occupied by two or three empty shopping carts. Now, I don’t think that this happens because people are too lazy to take the carts back to the designated return stalls. No, it’s got to be that they are just a bit disoriented after the wonderfully utopian experience they’d just had in the store. Thus, I tend to cut the rude so and so’s- uh, I mean, happy shoppers- some slack. After all you can tell by they way they are driving through the lot that they still haven’t completely come down to Earth yet.
As you walk into the store, you are met by the ever-present Wal-Mart greeter. From the looks on the faces of many of them, I fail to see why they call them “greeters”. I guess I can’t fault them too much; after all, they have to spend all day in the Wal-Mart, as opposed to my lenient sentence of only an hour or so.
The first thing you see after entering the store is a display that contains a large quantity of some product that they are desperately trying to get rid of. On this particular day, it is two huge pallet-sized cardboard boxes of Dr. Pepper in bottles that are shaped like footballs. Apparently, most shoppers share my point of view that a football is not the most user-friendly shape for a beverage container.
As you pass by the Dr. Pepper’s along with all the other shoppers, you are awed at the sheer size of the building. You have to cross two parish lines to get to the other end of it. You would think that they have every item imaginable inside the store, including an inventory of small aircraft, but you find to your severe disappointment that this is not really the case.
Yes, the building is large, and it is stocked with lots of goods, but upon closer scrutiny you discover that the inventory consists of vast quantities of just a few select items. For instance, as you walk through the grocery section, you pass the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese aisle, the Nacho-Cheese Flavored Doritos aisle, and the Community Dark Roast Coffee aisle. Then, after the long hike to the electronics department, you pass the Britney Spears CD aisle.
If you are shopping for anything even remotely obscure like, say, Lipton Sparkling Diet Kiwi-Strawberry Green Tea, you are just plain out of luck. I didn’t get to cross that particular item off of my shopping list.
Another let-down in the way of selection at the Wal-Mart is that a lot of items are only stocked when they are “in season”. That would be fine, but I think that here in Louisiana they follow the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. Want to buy a bathing suit in August? You’re sure to find a wide selection at the Wal-Mart- in Brazil.
One thing I notice when I shop at Wal-Mart is that they really like to make the experience intriguing by the way they strategically place items throughout the store. You never know where you’re going to be able find what you’re looking for. Every time I go there I feel like I’m on a scavenger hunt.
On top of that, they kick it up a notch by re-arranging the entire store every two weeks or so. Entire departments are shifted from one end to the other. One time I went to the Wal-Mart to buy some fishing tackle, and when I got to the area where I was used to seeing it, I found myself in the lingerie department. I don’t know what that was all about.
Don’t bother trying to buy electronic gadgets there, either. If you want to buy, say, an I-pod, but you’re not sure which one, don’t expect to find anyone in the department who knows anything at all about them to help you through the selection process. Heck, you’ll be lucky if you can find an assistant who has a key to the cabinet where they keep them locked up behind the glass. Sure, you can see them all in there with their outrageously low price tags, but in reality, they’re just teasing you.
Another part of the experience is dealing with other shoppers. They are always playing games. One of the most popular games they like to play is called “Block The Aisle”. For instance, as I was strolling down the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese aisle, I was stopped dead by an extended family of about fifteen with three loaded carts standing side-by-side. There they were, engaged in serious deliberations over whether to get the five 8-ounce boxes for the special price or to just go with the one family size. Honestly, they could have been a bit more courteous and set up a detour sign at the head of the aisle.
Finally, you make it to the checkout, after having aged a few years. There are cases where fourteen-year olds have entered the store and, by the time they get to the checkout, they are able purchase alcohol without an ID. All Wal-Mart’s have a minimum of twenty-five checkout counters, but never are there more than three open at any given time. So, your next experience is “The Line”. Honestly, The Line would not be so bad if they had some other reading material besides The National Enquirer at the checkout. Myself, I pass the time by reading the list of ingredients on the bubble gum wrappers.
Next, it’s time for the aerobic exercise. The checkout person scans your items and places them in the bags so fast you think she has the arms of an octopus. The bag carousel is spinning faster than the roulette wheel at the Isle of Capri, and you’re having a heart attack trying snag your parcels as they spin by and drop them in your cart. Do not forget at this point to add money to your gas card so you can save the price of a small fountain drink on your next fill-up. And don’t forget the Additech Gas Treatment! (Don’t worry; they don’t let you.)
Finally, you head with your overflowing cart to the exit. The ever-present greeter gives you a sneer and demands your receipt. You fish through your wallet and extract the foot-long slip. She quickly glances between the document and your cart, putting a line through it with her yellow highlighter. You’re amazed at how quickly she can cross check the receipt against your overflowing cart of bagged items. It’s a little known fact, but all Wal-Mart greeters are from the planet Krypton. Don’t even try to sneak out a Sony Play Station underneath all of the bags.
Of course, when you get to the parking lot and load your car, it’s imperative that you follow tradition. Even if you are parked right next to the stall for the empty carts, you must leave yours in the nearest vacant parking space, no matter if it is at the far end of the row.
But you’re not done yet! There’s that last stop at the Kroger to pick up the Lipton Sparkling Diet Kiwi-Strawberry Green Tea.