March 01, 2004

Confessions of a Wal-Mart Shopper

Shelby's already spilled the beans, but . . . um . . . since we got here, we've been doing a fair amount of our shopping at . . . Wal-Mart.

Yes, there are Wal-Mart stores in Germany -- almost a hundred of them, actually. The idea of going into any Wal-Mart always seems a little cringe-worthy to me (and even more so after reading the Los Angeles Times' series of articles on "The Wal-Mart Effect"), but W-M stores are different here -- hearkening back to a kinder, gentler time when American Wal-Mart stores may have been crushing small-town retailers, but were at least still boosting the idea of "Made in the USA".

Everything we've bought from a Hamburg Wal-Mart has been made in Europe -- even down to the cheapo nightstand that we bought for Shelby, which was made in Denmark. Plus, W-M employees here are unionized and protected by the same web of laws that surrounds every other toiler in this worker's paradise, so you know that the guy behind the checkstand in Hamburg is doing far better than somebody behind a W-M checkstand anywhere in the United States. Also, W-M is one of the few retailers here that sells food and takes credit cards, something that occasionally comes in handy.

One of the few exceptions to the "Made in Europe, More-or-Less" rule is clothes -- and the clothes for sale in Wal-Marts over here are just as cheap and shoddy looking as what you'd find in an American Wal-Mart. But between their general tackiness and the fact that we packed twice as many clothes as we actually need, there's no worry about us expanding the evil reach of globalization that way.

(While searching around, I found an interesting story in the Christian Science Monitor on how far the juggernaut has to go in Germany before it has anything resembling the power that it has elsewhere in the world: Wal-Mart lesson: Smiling Service Won't Win Germans.)

Where else can we get our groceries? Most of the time, we end up at a Spar, the store that most resembles an American supermarket (only smaller and with fewer choices). We can do it the traditional way, and go to a raft of specialty stores -- the grocer, the butcher, the bakery, the drugstore, the farmers' markets -- to buy a portion of what we need; this only really works well if you've got a lot of time on your hands. If you're desperate, you can go to Aldi or Penny Markt, which fit in the "Pic-'n-Save of groceries" category of retailing -- the inventory changes with every trip, goods are indifferently presented in torn-open cardboard boxes stacked on top of wooden palettes, and you'd have to be insane to buy fruits, vegetables, or anything not otherwise pre-packaged there. (Mysteriously, Theo Albrecht, one of the owners of Aldi, also owns Trader Joe's, the not-very-Aldi-like mini-chain of yupscale markets in the U.S.)

Posted by Kevin at March 1, 2004 05:09 PM