RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Belly of the Beast

A couple of months ago I wrote some bad things about Wal-Mart, which has become in 10 years the world's largest grocer. And then a reader wrote in and said, in effect, that with her hectic schedule and limited income, she needed the giant store to keep her family going.

I wondered: Was I too hasty in my condemnation? So focused on the bad stuff the giants do -- like keeping wages low, forcing competitors out of business, keeping employees at part-time status, refusing employee benefits, forcing unions out, evading property taxes, passing off development costs to taxpayers, squeezing suppliers so that they, in turn, squeeze their employees and their suppliers, hastening the race to the bottom -- where was I? Oh yeah -- looking for the good stuff. And the good in Wal-Mart is, of course, convenience and low prices.

So I, who hadn't been in a Wal-Mart for eight years, decided to price check.

My usual shopping strategy is to pop in for stuff at places I pass regularly. This means a couple of semi-independent grocery stores, a dollar store, a hardware store, a farm store.

I saved receipts from all the random places where I shopped in one week -- six places -- and then I went to Wal-Mart. I chose the one that's been in the Missouri news lately for dumping waste from their McDonald's in the creek. What losers! I figured, if you're going to be in the belly of the beast, might as well choose the stinkiest belly and the stinkiest beast.

So the goal was to see how much money I would save by shopping at Wally World. And, you know what? I save money by NOT shopping there.

There were a few things Wal-Mart sold cheaper. I had bought foam cups for my husband's birthday party, paying 89 cents. Wal-Mart had them for 83 cents. And Wal-Mart was cheaper on clothespins, which I had bought for $2.99 at the hardware store and Wal-Mart had for $2.96. Some baking ingredients -- coconut, chocolate chips, butter -- cost a nickel less at Wal-Mart.

But, surprise! Most of their groceries were higher than the little stores where I go. One hundred tortillas were $2.89 at my store. It would have cost $4.50 to get that many at Wal-Mart. Cottage cheese, sour cream, pepper, tooth paste, mouthwash, and those plastic containers to pack leftovers -- all higher by 3% to 50% at Wal-Mart. And here's the real shocker. Wal-Mart's fresh fruits and vegetables, like peaches, green beans and tomatoes, were higher than the grocery store and much higher than the farmers' market, where producers set their own prices. Green beans, in fact, were twice as high!

I know that my purchases are idiosyncratic. I don't buy processed foods or factory meat or cheese, for example, which are the only meats and cheeses they had.

My biggest saving was on something I bought from a neighbor -- a custom-made birthday cake. She would have been near heartbroken if I hadn't called her. And, it turns out, she had come up with a unique design. Only someone from our neighborhood could have made this cake, decorated with a fiddle surrounded by the names of tunes my husband plays. Made with love, it turned his party into a very special occasion. And, buying from my neighbor means that the $25 I paid stays in our neighborhood.

But, just out of curiosity, I checked to see what the same size cake would have cost at Wally World. Theirs was $38 -- $13 more than the one I bought. Local purchases aren't always cheaper, of course -- but that $13, multiplied over the four or five cakes I buy every year gives me some cushion for local purchases that may be higher.

So much for the price thing. The convenience thing is another matter. My little stores are on my regular routes, while Wal-Mart is three miles out of the way. And I prefer small parking lots where I can leave the car near a store entrance, pop in, buy what I need and make a quick getaway. At the big stores, you're always parking a half block away. I'm usually in too much of a hurry to walk so far.

I will say this for Wal-Mart, though. The workers were very well-trained and nice. I know this because I spent a lot of time walking around. And the staff was smiling and helpful. But even though the store is huge -- this was a Super Center -- the selection is slim. There were only one or two sizes of most items, but a carload of that one size. Some things, like the plastic containers, came in only one size but reappeared by the hundreds in several departments-groceries, school supplies, hobbies. If you wanted a walk, being surrounded by that redundancy would be OK, but if you need to get your stuff and leave, it was just too frustrating.

So here's the lesson: If you're on a budget -- and who's not? -- do your own comparison using the things you buy. The ads are persuasive, but Wal-Mart isn't doing consumers any favors.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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