Mar 19 2012

Wal-Mart Fieldwork

Published by at 1:02 am under Uncategorized

On Friday, March 16th, 2012, I visited our local Wal-Mart in Central Park. Located in what Virginia boasts as the largest outdoor shopping center on the East Coast, the single store is as large as the space that five or more stores are crammed into in the surrounding buildings. The weather was pretty cloudy when I arrived at 11 AM, but the temperature was nice, which I appreciated as I parked about halfway down the line in the parking lot, near the grocery side doors. The huge parking lot was about halfway full. There are three obvious ways of entry into the store: the doors near the groceries, the doors near the pharmacy, and the garden center. When I entered the store, I did not see a greeter at the doors near the groceries, but later I observed a greeter sitting by the ‘outdoor’ garden center doors. The store is open 24 hours a day for convenience, and accessible by taking the Fred Bus, driving your own car, or walking from neighborhoods on nearby Fall Hill Road.
Wal-Mart is known for being a ‘big-box’ store, and it lives up to its name. To me, it feels like a warehouse, and the pallets of items place along the main aisles and in front of the registers – for impulse buying – contribute to that. The shelves were overstocked and for the most part neat, but not perfect. The clothes, I noticed, actually looked pretty neat, but it was early in the day and perhaps they hadn’t had a rush of clothing shoppers yet! I was impressed with how clean the store was, especially the bathrooms. I saw a lot of families shopping; most of them included one parent (either a mother or father,) with one or more children. I wondered why these kids weren’t in school, but perhaps Fredericksburg has a large homeschooling population? I also noticed quite a few older, possibly retired people shopping. As far as the distribution of people throughout the store, I spotted the most employees in the pharmacy and cosmetics are, the sporting goods, and the garden center. I only saw a couple of employees in the grocery area, and that was where the most people were shopping. I noted that of the employees who chose to look at me and make eye contact, none of them spoke to me or even smiled. They didn’t seem grumpy, and I saw many of them talking amongst themselves and laughing. I got the impression that whatever work the employees were doing was more important that greeting their shoppers.
Some things that are interesting about this particular Wal-Mart store were the size of the sporting goods, automotive, home improvement, and garden sections. They were huge compared to other stores (Target, Kmart.) It seems that Wal-Mart knows their customers, and made this adjustment for their floor plan accordingly. This store also has a decent sized craft section; complete with many types of fabric you can have cut by the yard, which many other similar stores are lacking completely. Selling patterns I observed in this store include that there is a lot sold in bulk. The pet food aisle, for example, is almost exclusively full of HUGE bags (over 25 pounds) of food. In the grocery section, one can observe many bulk items such as large family packs of meat, combo packs of cereal, and even large quantities of eggs (you can get 36 in one package.) There is a well distributed selection of both name brand items and store brand / generics. One thing I noticed was the signage in the store, or lack thereof. I did not see a lot of sale signs in the aisles of grocery, as you would normally see in other stores. It seemed that the only place sales were highlighted were on those displays in the main aisles of the store, and some of those items were actually not on sale, but I can see how shoppers would automatically think they are getting a deal because of the way the merchandise is displayed. It was the same in the makeup and clothing aisles, where I pretty much observed every sign stating “Everyday Low Prices.” Wal-Mart may be emphasizing their every day low prices instead of sale items in order to attract more consistent shoppers. According to Nickel and Dimed, women visit Wal-Mart up to 3 times a week, and maybe don’t care to shop around for what’s on sale but just want to feel like they are getting all the low prices possible in one stop. Back to Wal-Mart catering to their demographic of shoppers, I spotted one interesting item in the seasonal section, which is located in the front of the store and easy to navigate, currently divided by candy, crafts, and a full wall of Easter baskets. There is even a spot for camouflaged Easter basket, the kind of thing that makes me think “Only at Wal-Mart…”
In addition to shopping for groceries, ammo, car care items, and colored sand for your garden, one can visit the bank, hair salon, nail salon, optometrist, McDonald’s, portrait studio, H&R Block, DVD vending machine, and arcade all in one place. Wal-Mart is like a low wage worker’s mall, if one can even afford to shop there. As noted in Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, many Wal-Mart employees may not be able to afford the luxury of shopping where they work. Don’t forget to pick up your favorite CD – censored of course, a pack of cigarettes, and even a money order if you need it while you’re there. You truly can get almost anything at your local Wal-Mart. It is the ultimate convenience store.
I choose to bypass most of these activities, and because it was lunch time by the time I finished my tour of the store, I picked up a bottle of Hershey’s cookies and cream flavored milk and a box of marshmallow Peeps. The cashier at the express lane I chose was a nice older man who greeted me with a ‘Hello, How are you?’ and a smile. That was the only conversation I engaged in with any employees during my time at this store. The unhelpfulness of the employees and the feeling that I’m shopping in a warehouse are the major turnoffs for me when it comes to shopping at Wal-Mart. In a pinch, I’ll go there to pick up a few things or if I know something I need is on sale, but as far as needing milk in the middle of the night, I’d rather go to WaWa, where the employees are smiling and crack jokes with you, even at 2 AM, and you don’t have to walk through 30 aisles to get what you need.

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