RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Low-Price Loss Leader

Well, CAFTA has passed and the news sent me shopping. The big stores, after all, are the ones that will benefit from policies that allow industry to exploit poor people and unprotected environments in all parts of the hemisphere.

So off I went to Wal-Mart, the world's most efficient distribution system as they say, to look for the bargains.

Last year, longtime readers may remember, I learned that I saved a fistful of dollars by NOT shopping at Wal-Mart. This year, the margins were tighter. I only saved a few fingers' worth by not shopping at Wal-Mart.

Normally, I'm in too much hurry for Wal-Mart. The drive requires a couple of crowded miles on an access road followed by a slow crawl through a huge, pedestrian-riddled parking lot. And, an hour in a big store is exhausting. My friend says it's because they "suck out your soul."

Instead, I shop at the little stores I normally pass in the course of my week. I can park, walk a few steps and there I am in the midst of things.

There's no rhyme or reason to where I go, except that I buy most of my food at the farmers' market, the local-foods grocer or the health-food store. At these little places, I see my friends and catch up on all the news. I leave exhilarated. So maybe the relationships restore me. For the purposes of this comparison, however, we'll put our souls aside. Today, we're just looking for low prices.

As I did last year, I took the list of stuff I've purchased in the last month, which happened to be July. My list is way different than your list, because I raise a lot of food and preserve it for year-round use. So you need to take your own list if you want to compare.

Let's assume, however, that we both buy toilet paper, toothpaste and soap. Perhaps you, like me, also buy deodorant. In July, I went to the Dollar Store -- not a bastion of social justice or environmental integrity, but I was looking for cheap, and I bought 18 rolls of Northern toilet paper for $5, 8.2 oz of Crest toothpaste for $1, 6 bars of Dial for $3 and a stick of Secret deodorant for $1.75. $10.75 total.

At Wal-Mart, $10.75 wouldn't even have bought the toilet paper. That's right, I checked it twice. Comparing for sizes, the identical brands cost $10.96 for the toilet paper, $2.72 for the Crest, $3.94 for the Dial and $2.47 for the Secret. $20.09 total.

To be fair, I could have found cheaper TP at the world's most efficient distribution system, but I was looking for identical size and brand. And I would have earned back some of that by buying groceries at Wal-Mart. Without going into too much detail, I bought cinnamon, instant coffee, sugar, vinegar, mayonnaise, noodles, frozen peas, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, mozzarella, fresh peaches and fresh corn at a total of $52. At Wal-Mart, I would have gotten by on $46.97.

Brand for brand, size for size, I looked for identical products. The instant coffee, sugar, mayonnaise. But can we compare the organic cinnamon from the health-food store to the dusty bottle on Wally's shelf? And the peaches. I was canning and they must be fresh so I happily paid $1 per pound for my neighbors' just-picked rather than go for the 88-cent peaches Wally offered.

Some things have no comparison so I didn't try. In July, I paid nearly twice the Wal-Mart price for ham steak and ribs, but I know the farmers that raised them and the packer that packed them. The label on the ham steak and ribs at Wal-Mart reads, "enhanced with up to 12% solution," which means saline, or salt, solution. So that's why George Foreman gets so much icky juice from his grill. Why pay for that? And, while we're on the subject, doesn't salt cause high blood pressure?

The particular Wal-Mart where I compared is in Columbia, Mo. Taxpayers paid for the infrastructure -- the highway access, sewer, water and so forth. The little stores are on streets and strip malls paid for a generation ago.

And, of course, every time we buy from multinational corporations like the packers and processors that supply Wal-Mart we're paying for the subsidy programs of the federal government that benefit large corporations. We're paying for programs that kick indigenous people off their land to build factories in South America.

Back at home, still looking at the experience financially, since Wal-Mart hires mostly part-timers that don't qualify for health insurance, we pay every time an employee gets ill and goes to the emergency room.

So, at the "low-price leader," society pays and pays again.

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

Home Page

Copyright © 2005 The Progressive Populist