Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What happens after Walmart topples from power? Look to West Virginia for the answer.

No company lasts forever.

I've talked about markets and supermarkets and big boxes ad nauseum, and I've repeatedly noted that A&P was displaced by the Krogers and Safeways, and that the Krogers and Safeways are being displaced by Walmart.

And Walmart will be displaced also.

Because someone - maybe Amazon, maybe someone else - will be able to cut costs lower than Walmart has.

And all the people who deplore what Walmart has done to Main Street will be REALLY unhappy when Walmart leaves.

Don't believe me? Look at what happened in a small town in West Virginia after the local Walmart Supercenter closed.

Hit hard by the longterm decline in coal mining that is the mainstay of the area, McDowell County has seen a devastating and sustained erosion of its people, from almost 100,000 in 1950 when coal was king, to about 18,000 today....

When you combine the county’s economic malaise with Walmart’s increasingly ferocious battle against Amazon for dominance over online retailing, you can see why outsized physical presences could seem surplus to requirements. “There has been a wave of closings across the US, most acutely in small towns and rural communities that have had heavy population loss,” said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University who is an authority on Walmart’s local impact.

There are still Walmarts in the area, but they're an hour away, and people in West Virginia aren't used to driving an hour to get somewhere. (It's different in southern California.) So now it's hard to find work, and it's hard to shop. And the local governments are missing out on a lot of tax revenue, and are cutting services as a result.

But there was an unexpected consequence of Walmart's closure.

"It was a big thing for people round here when Walmart pulled out. People didn’t know what to do. Young people started leaving because there’s nothing for them here. It’s like we’re existing, but not existing.”

What? A closure of an impersonal blue and yellow store affects society?

You betcha.

Economic losses are only one aspect of the hurt felt locally as a result of Walmart’s passing. There is something intangible, less material – and more chilling – about the fallout, something that seems to flow from the dependency the people of McDowell County developed on the retail magic conjured up inside that big box.

It’s touched upon by Wanda Church when she tries to explain why she cried that day. It was because, she says, she lost her family when Walmart closed.

Her family?

“The people I worked with, I relied on them if I needed help. The customers, they were our family.”

You hear it from Darrell Williams, 42, a truck driver picking wild raspberries on the side of the road to make a fruit cobbler. He recalls that his twin boys acquired their nicknames inside the supercenter. “My kids grew up in there. They called them the Screamers, because they used to scream if they didn’t get what they wanted.”

For Dan Phillips, Walmart was a way of coping with bereavement after his wife died a few years ago. “If you were lonely and had nothing to do, you’d go to Walmart to talk to folk. It was a great social network.”

Being a schoolteacher, Phillips has a theory for what happened when the store closed. “Socialization. We lost our socialization factor. Now it’s hard to keep track of people, there’s no other place like it where you can stand and chat.”

And if Amazon replaces Walmart as the nation's Main Street, its socialization aspects are fairly rudimentary. Product reviews do not a society make.

I just downloaded the "Beauty and the Beast" movie, and the experience on my iPad, while not quite like the experience in the movie theater, is still superb.

Wanda, glad you liked the movie. Hey, how are those tomato plants doing?

Well, Mike, the sun's got the best of them, but some of the plants are still hanging in there. How's the wife?

Oh, she's doing good The cold spell we just had shook her up a bit, though.

Tell her to send some of that cold down here! Hey, will you be shopping tomorrow?

No, tomorrow's my day to play Pokemon Go, and my work has scheduled 24 hours of online meetings over the weekend.

That's too much, Mike! You take care.

You too, Wanda.

Now if Amazon were to buy Facebook...or perhaps Zynga...
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