Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Wal-Mart for the Espresso Set

Small town newspapers can have good writers, and this seems to be true of The Lewiston Tribune, an Idaho paper with a writer named Michael Costello.

Costello takes a shot at the cultural elitism of the anti-Wal-Mart crowd, and scores a direct hit.

His article is here, but that’s not going to help you much, since you have to have a paid registration to see it.

Happily, Palousitics has reprinted it. Some key parts:
There has always been a taint of elitism wafting from the opposition to the construction of a Wal-Mart superstore in Pullman. Most of the time, the ironically misnamed Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development (PARD) concealed its snobbery behind concerns for local businesses, most of which did not ask for PARD’s protection, or in the form of complaints that Wal-Mart would not compensate its employees to PARD’s standards.

Never mind that those who choose to work for Wal-Mart would be deciding for themselves that the compensation was satisfactory. But knowing what’s best for you even if you don’t is central to elitism.

PARD even argued that Wal-Mart would harm the local branch of Shopko. Does anyone really believe that PARD cared in the slightest about Shopko’s fate?

But now it seems that Wal-Mart has adjusted its business model to satisfy the underlying concerns that animate its opponents. Once the Wal-Mart is built, the tweed-jacketed PARDners will probably be able to purchase $500 bottles of wine or belly up to the sushi bar and treat their palates to raw fish and seaweed. That’s because Wal-Mart has decided to modify what it offers within its walls to conform to the specific cultures of the communities it serves.

This should go a long way toward addressing one major concern of Pullman’s Wal-Mart opponents — that Wal-Mart would invite the “intrusion of undesirable social elements” into the community (see page 8 of the examiner’s report). While the wienies and french fries sold at the Lewiston store might satisfy that demographic’s tastes, PARDners will be satisfied with nothing less than croissant and bean sprout sandwiches, or spicy hummus and water crackers, washed down with a Starbuck’s green tea frappucino chaser.

That should keep those undesirable social elements from crossing onto PARD’s side of the tracks.

Indeed, Wal-Mart is reacting to elitists who prefer to buy identical items at higher prices from more prestigious storefronts. Certainly the proliferation of high-priced coffee shops in Pullman proves that to many it matters more where you are seen buying coffee than the contents of the cup itself. Otherwise, people would just buy a Mr. Coffee and an occasional can of Folger’s, as I do. From a quality standpoint, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is really quite ordinary, but patrons really want the checkout clerk to know that they are willing to pay much more than it is worth and because a small fraction goes to save rain forests, or something.

Similarly, Wal-Mart plans to sell high-end, brand-name high-definition plasma televisions as well as the standard, low-priced cathode-ray-tube models labeled “assembled in big hurry.” Even the look will be different. The standard Wal-Mart red, white and blue exterior will be replaced by two-toned brick and mortar look. Employee uniforms in these trendy, upscale Wal-Mart stores are to be khaki pants and polo shirts. Only Mao jackets would make PARDners feel more at home. Put Birkenstock sandals on the employees’ feet, and no one would ever guess that they came to Pullman from those undesirable social classes.

All Wal-Mart has to do now is place sofas and coffee tables in its book section and allow PARDners to read the New York Times free of charge.
The column isn’t entirely parody, since Wal-Mart has indeed opened a store in Plano, Texas designed to appeal to upscale Yuppie tastes.

Will that mitigate the hostility that the cultural elites feel toward the Arkansas-based retail giant? We will see.

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