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Mobile Register

By David Thomasson

Wal-Mart, Red Man and
the regular cost of convenience

I got into an interesting hassle the other day over the price of chewing tobacco. Let me bring you in by the scenic route.

About the time I was moving to South Alabama from New England two summers ago, Wal-Mart was bumping into some of the granite attitudes common in that corner of America. Sam Walton’s company was looking to put up a SuperCenter outside a small Massachusetts town.

But the local Yanks weren’t having it. They liked their little community stores just fine, thank you. If someone needed motor oil, mushroom soup and a perm all on the same day, well, three stops were no bother. They were a chance to visit with townfolk — and visitin’ is one of the constituents of community that these people were not willing to swap for “progress.”

So they went to their town meeting, set their jaw, and told Wal-Mart to roll up its blueprints and get along down the road. And Wal-Mart got.

Many times since Wal-Mart built a SuperCenter in Daphne, I’ve thought of those stubborn New Englanders and the trade-off they resisted. No such resistance here. Baldwin County is in the throes of turbocharged yuppification. It is a sprawling, crawling monument to the brand of “progress” that Wal-Mart thrives on and that those Yanks wanted no part of.

I’m getting so I don’t want any part of it either. I grew up in a rural Virginia community called Boonsboro, just north of Lynchburg. Mitchell’s Store was where we hung out as high school kids, sitting around on milk crates, slurping pop and shooting the breeze.

But more was going on at Mitchell’s Store than I realized then. Subtle forces were at work building character and community.

All of us boys cussed, of course, but not around the store. Mrs. Mitchell saw to that, and it taught us to develop a sense of the appropriate place for it. To this day I bristle when I hear kids foul-mouthing in public. It isn’t the cussing that irritates me; it’s their utter lack of restraint and sense of place.

The Mitchell boys, Mike and Pat Jr., went to school with us and worked in the store, so we got the continuing lesson of a family working together. And when an old-timer came in, you got up and gave him your milk crate. We didn’t think of it as acquiring respect for our elders; it was just something you did at Mitchell’s.

Mrs. Mitchell let us high school boys run a tab for our pop, nabs and gasoline. But she would get after us if we let it run too high. It was a continuing lesson in fiscal responsibility, though we didn’t think of it that way.

The shift from Mitchell’s Store to the Daphne SuperCenter is of a magnitude to inspire Jules Verne. The SuperCenter building is large enough to have its own weather systems.

But size is only the most obvious difference. I discovered a few others in the tobacco aisle that day. The familiar bags of Red Man bore bright yellow labels announcing a “Special limited offer: 25 cents off the regular retail price.”

Red Man regularly sells for $1.46, so I tossed three bags into the carriage (for my grandmother). When the cashier scanned them, they rang up $1.44 apiece. I politely pointed out that the “Special limited offer” would make the sale price $1.21.

The cashier was suddenly a doe staring into the oncoming headlights. Nothing in her training had prepared her for this, so she smacked a button that set a lighted number above her register to blinking.

Soon, several blue-smocked Wal-Martians converged on the scene, and I began to understand how a virus feels when the white corpuscles close in. They scowled at the Red Man, scowled at me, and ruled that the 25 cents had already been deducted in the computer. Then they drifted away, perhaps in search of another infection to neutralize.

It was only a matter of 75 cents. Should I bother? Yes, I thought, do it for Granny. So I patiently explained that the regular price of Red Man was $1.46; I had been paying it every week for months, so on this point I was on solid ground.

The cashier stared into the headlights again and smacked the button. Hattie Mitchell didn’t have a blinking light. Any problem at her register was solved by her, and I mean right now, mister.

Another Wal-Martian soon arrived and made her superior authority known by screeching at a volume that could be heard for five or six aisles in either direction. Dozens of heads swiveled and stared as she delivered a lecture on Wal-Mart’s pricing policy.

The regular price, she shrieked, is not what one regularly pays at Wal-Mart, but rather what one would regularly pay if one shopped up the road at Delchamps Supermarket. I silently mused that a store big enough to have its own weather is big enough to publish its own dictionary, according to which “regular” doesn’t mean regular.

The Superior Authority would further have me (and 30 or 40 other customers) understand that Red Man costs $1.78 at Delchamps and that Wal-Mart routinely (regularly?) knocks off 25 cents in its computer. I silently mused that a store big enough to have its own language could develop its own system of arithmetic — Wal-Math — according to which $1.78 minus 25 cents equals $1.44.

I considered mentioning that this offer was “special” and “limited,” which suggests that something other than routine pricing was called for. But this would only invite more terminology from Wal-Speak, so I merely stood my ground, like a wooden Red Man.

Driving home, I searched for lessons. One is that for all the advantages and convenience of giant enterprises like the SuperCenter, we pay the price of depersonalization.

At Mitchell’s, no policy or procedure ever displaced the recognition of persons. If your tab ran too high and Mrs. Mitchell got on your case, it wasn't the legalistic hounding of a creditor but the firm guidance of a parent-figure. Maybe that’s why we called her “Ma Mitchell.”

Mitchell’s Store was, and still is, a business that helped sustain community. Giants like Wal-Mart SuperCenters are businesses that displace community. Their massive, tiered structure and intricate policies act as screens between proprietor and customer, person and person. The shrieking manager I encountered was nothing but a surrogate for the company computer, a parrot taught to recite corporate policy.

I got my 75 cents, but I didn't get any satisfaction. All things considered, I suspect that we’d be better off if Baldwin Countians had possessed the insight of those flinty New Englanders who told Wal-Mart to roll up its blueprints and get along down the road.

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