It’s becoming impossible not to shop at Walmart … and Amazon

It was nearly twenty years ago when I first wrote about Walmart and how I thought it was an evil company. Over the years I’ve complained about it periodically, such as noting the death of a Walmart employee who became a martyr for greed on Black Friday. Anyhow, I vowed to do my best never to shop at Walmart again.

A few days ago I ended up buying some distilled water at my local Walmart. Why? Because I kept trying to find a source of distilled water locally. The closest I could find was $1.99 a gallon at CVS and there weren’t more than a dozen bottles on their shelf. I need distilled water for my CPAP machine. I could buy it sporadically at a Target across the river in Hadley, Massachusetts. When I could buy it there, I paid $.99 a gallon. But more often than not there was plenty of bottled drinking water and no bottled distilled water. The local Big Y grocery chain usually doesn’t have it but when it’s available it’s priced at about $1.50 a gallon. I thus started haunting the local Walmart where it finally showed up the other day. I bought three gallons, but at least I paid cash for it. For always low prices, they charged $1.16 a gallon. If I could have bought it at Target, which pays employees a living wage, I could have done the right thing and saved $.17 a gallon too.

This is happening because seven years ago we moved to Western Massachusetts. Basically we are nowhere near a big city anymore. There’s lots of small businesses here in Northampton, which is good, but few national retailers. The only national chain we have in great abundance here are Dunkin Donuts. You have to drive ten miles and across the river to Hadley to buy normal stuff. But even there, there’s not many major retailers aside from Target, Home Depot and a Lowes. Which means if you really need to buy regular stuff, it generally takes a trek to Springfield or West Springfield, about twenty miles each way.

I’d like to say that more and more chains are coming our way, but it’s just the opposite. The Hadley Bed, Bath & Beyond is closing, which means going to Springfield soon if we want to patronize the chain. In seven years I’ve watched a number of standard retailers leave Northampton, including a Staples store.

It’s good to have principles and to stick with them, and for at least twenty years I’ve been sticking it to Walmart by not buying there. But the other day the hassle and inconvenience just became too much. It was still a hassle, however, as Walmart apparently gets their distilled water from the same place Target does. So when I can find it, I feel a need to stock up because God knows when I will be able to find it conveniently around here at any price.

Yesterday though I actually charged something at a Walmart. Again, I felt guilty about it, but really had no choice except to order from another evil corporation: Amazon. I was looking for a new digital wall clock, to replace the one I keep upstairs in my office that was losing ten minutes a day.

I went to the Target first, assuming they’d have one. There wasn’t a clock for sale anywhere in the store, unless you meant a wristwatch. Then I went to the Bed, Bath & Beyond which had analog clocks for mounting on walls that I didn’t want. Even so with a store closing sale, inventory was spotty. Next I tried the Home Depot across the street. I thought I saw clocks there in the past but couldn’t find any. That’s when I realized if any place would have it in Hadley, it would be the Walmart across the street. There were four models to choose from. I bought two, the second to replace the clock in our guest room, which was so old it still had programmed old daylight savings time rules which flipped over to DST in April. I paid $26 plus tax.

Walmart, of course, is ubiquitous for being pretty much everywhere. They did this mostly by undercutting small businesses until they went out of business. Amazon did the same thing but also offered a much greater selection than any local retailer could provide. Now that most of that competition is gone, so too are many of the discounts you used to expect. The practical result of all this in that in many more rural parts of the country you don’t really have a choice. Much of the time it’s going to be Walmart or Amazon because they priced out local and national chains and it’s simply not available without a lot of driving and time if you need it fast.

I don’t give myself too much of a guilt trip. I mostly avoid buying from Amazon, but it’s a painful necessity a few times a year. I definitely avoided buying from Walmart until the cost in price and hassle just became too much. I still don’t plan to make a habit of it except for distilled water, if they have it.

If you can’t wait for your Amazon shipment, as a practical matter in many communities like mine you have to shop at Walmart and even then you can’t assume they will have what you need. They are just more likely to stock it conveniently.

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