As I drive around the parking lot in my rental car one Saturday morning in March, I am already spotting the early birds, busily handling their overflowing shopping carts and Sports Utility Vehicles. Since I haven’t come to shop here but to study the Wal*Mart phenomenon, I attract the attention of a security guard who patrols the area in his little vehicle. He’s been hired to combat car break-ins and theft, loitering youths and illicit camping, even rapes and murders – the police force of La Quinta, the county to which this Wal*Mart officially belongs, had grown tired of lending out their own officers.
To the right I notice a group of older men waiting patiently in line for a free prostate cancer check-up in a mobile medical unit. The men are not the only ones who profit from this service. Such an initiative also gives Wal*Mart a good name. In the meantime, the wives go shopping.
Inside the store, which is the size of four soccer fields, I am awed by the immense emptiness, which is surprising given the hundred thousand or so different items on display. Wal*Mart Supercenters are designed for easy navigation. That’s why everything is spread out on the ground level, in wide aisles, under a high ceiling. Products are arranged in a logical manner. It is impossible to get lost. There is no need for claustrophobia. The idea is that once inside, people should be confronted with as many items as possible as they travel through the store, and when they want to throw something in their cart, it should be easy to reach. No moving up and down escalators, no fruitless searching for departments, no forced routes and, because there are no closing times (Wal*Mart is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year), the checkout lines tend to be short. Employees are obviously still needed to fill shelves and to arrange and rearrange the merchandise. It won’t be long, though, before customers will be able to pay at automatic check-outs.
Wal*Mart Supercenters are now so huge and their range of products is so diverse that they constitute shopping malls in their own right. The traditional mall – a covered or uncovered space where a variety of retail stores market their wares – has been replaced by a ‘Wal*Mart mall’ offering many of the same goods, usually at a lower price. The big difference is that all the revenues end up in a cash register that is emptied every day to the benefit of Wal*Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. And because goods are purchased centrally, complaints by customers in Tennessee about ‘obscene’ skin magazines, CDs with violent rap lyrics or irresponsible hand guns may result in those same items being pulled from the shelves of a Wal*Mart in Detroit. Call it economic censorship.
An environmental organization has declared Vermont – one of the smallest, greenest and most progressive US states – a landmark in order to protect it against the destruction of the scenery allegedly caused by Wal*Mart’s anti-architecture. Whether this will make any difference remains to be seen. The same strategy was employed in 1993 in an effort to keep out Wal*Mart discount stores, but Wal*Mart eventually entered the state nonetheless. Vermont’s mountain villages may be more picturesque than the desert plains of Southern California. Still, most local goverments, including those in the Northeast, sooner or later end up caving in to the powerful corporation with its promises of jobs, tax revenues and lower prices.
It is not entirely fair to single out Wal*Mart for its anti-architecture. The fact is that the United States abounds with unimaginative ‘big box stores’: Sears, Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Costco, Ikea, Toys’R’Us and Barnes & Noble, to name a few, follow the exact same law of economies of scale, and are therefore just as guilty of ‘sprawl’ or unchecked suburban development. But Wal*Mart is the biggest of them all. It already has so many outlets (nearly 3000 in the US), harbours such aggressive growth plans (40 additional Supercenters in California alone) that it has become the favorite target of progressive politicians in recent years.
Wal*Mart can, however, be charged with polluting the environment in another way, namely with its so-called dark stores (critics talk of ‘dead stores’). These are empty former stores. According to the latest tally by Al Norman, America’s best-known Wal*Mart watcher, there are 371 empty boxes that once carried the name Wal*Mart scattered across America. Texas boasts the highest number of empty boxes: 42 in all. In The Case Against Wal*Mart, his latest book, Norman even calculated how much floor space the Arkansas corporation leaves unused – 653 acres, or 2.5 square kilometres. ‘Like a reptile crawling out of its skin, Wal*Mart has shed hundreds of stores to move on to bigger facilities,’ Norman wrote.
Since 1988 Wal*Mart has been busy replacing its discount stores with Supercenters – the same idea but bigger, more modern and efficient, and combined with a supermarket. The concept of such a ‘hyperstore’ was not original. Sam Walton, the corporation’s founder, borrowed it from the French Carrefour company which had started experimenting with it at least 30 years ago (as did the Dutch Makro chain which even gave it a brief try in the US). At the same time, existing supermarket chains like Pathmark in the east and Safeway in the west, as well as Stop & Shop (owned by Ahold of the Netherlands), have taken to offering more and more non-food items in their stores. These huge chains are increasingly competing against each other in the same market.
Meanwhile, what is Wal*Mart going to do with those old, vacated stores? We’re not going to lease them to the competition, the shrewd company reasons. This clause is even explicitly written into the lease contract. But if you are not allowed to turn it into a discount store, what other use could such a bare box have besides storage? None, it turns out, so Wal*Mart allows them to wither away, usually without having to pay very much in the way of real estate taxes by cutting a deal with local goverments. Half of America’s 371 dead Wal*Mart stores have been standing empty for two years. One-fifth for five years. In the US, where space is still abundant even in the face of sprawl, buildings are only demolished when it is absolutely necessary. Not all communities allow Wal*Mart to saddle them with empty boxes, however. Some stipulate that Wal*Mart can only start building a new facility if they have found a solution for the old one.
After my visit to the living Wal-Mart, I am looking for La Quinta’s dead store. I find it on the other side of Highway 111, a mile or two from the new Supercenter. The Wal*Mart logo is still faintly visible on the facade of the dilapidated building. The parking lot has been taken over by birds and vermin. A mini-ghost town of the 21st century.
Viktor Frölke is a correspondent with NRC-Handelsblad based in New York.