Box-shaped trinket warehouse Wal-Mart announced its fourth quarter sales figures yesterday, and the news was dark: although profit was up, sales at its U.S. stores fell for the seventh straight quarter. Why don't we love our Wal-Marts, any more?
Remember: Wal-Mart is as all-motherfucking-American as it gets, next to NASCAR and Sizzler. There is no retail outlet—or, indeed, corporation of any sort—that embodies the "dominate the world with too much of everything" American ethos better than Wal-Mart. Everything, as cheap as possible, under one roof. Put every store on Main Street America out of business, in favor of one huge box surrounded by an endless parking lot. Squeeze suppliers, squeeze manufacturers, squeeze wages, kill unions. Squeeze every last penny out of the price, at all costs, and leave your customers with no choice but to shop at Wal-Mart. (And work at Wal-Mart.)
The standard explanations for Wal-Mart's recent American decline: competition from grocery stores, competition from dollar stores, competition from convenience stores, competition from online retailers. Some of the company's strategic moves designed to attract wealthier, more fashionable shoppers turned out to be failures. Not to mention the fact that Wal-Mart has so saturated the country with its stores that new locations now routinely run the risk of cannibalizing another Wal-Mart's sales. Which is why the company is determined to carpet the few remaining Wal-Mart-free urban areas of America with—that's right—Wal-Marts.
But that's just pennies in a big jar. Wal-Mart's stock is lackluster. The company's besieged by business competitors, due to its default position on top, and by political enemies, due to its well-known fucked-upedness. Remember K-Mart? Sears Roebuck? Montgomery Ward? They were powerhouses once, too. Time passed them by. America forgot them. None had the same resources that Wal-Mart does today. But they all suffered the fate that Wal-Mart now fears: they lost their mojo.
If Wal-Mart continues a slow decline until it just shrivels and shrinks and turns into just another ugly store on the edge of the town, a kind of seedy one, the one you go to alone, when you need something utilitarian and cheap that doesn't have to impress anyone... well, that would just about restore my faith in America. Until the next Wal-Mart comes along.