I vividly remember what one professor told us one day in a sociology of religion class in graduate school: “If you want to find real Americans, just go to Walmart.” Several members of the class gasped – could the real America really be at Walmart, that exemplar of crass consumerism, low wages, and the loss of community life in America? This story from NPR makes a similar point:
The Wall Street Journal spotted the phenomenon recently. The headline: “Today’s Special at Wal-Mart: Something Weird.” “Almost any imaginable aspect of American life can and does take place inside Wal-Mart stores, from births to marriages to deaths,” observed the Journal‘s Miguel Bustillo. “Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin once officiated a wedding at the Wal-Mart in her hometown of Wasilla.”…
What is it about Walmart? As a species, we are fascinated by the place. The Web is awash with sites that scrutinize the Arkansas-based retailer’s every move. Walmart Watch, funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, says its mission is to challenge the multibillion-dollar retail chain “to more fully embrace its corporate responsibilities.” The now-infamous and snarky People of Walmart posts photos of shoppers. Hel-Mart offers anti-Walmart merchandise, such as T-shirts that say, “Resistance Is Futile.” Videos of people praising, mocking, pranking, walking around, dancing in Walmart are continuously posted on YouTube…
Officially, Walmart explains the apparent zaniness this way: “Over the years, Walmart has become a microcosm of American life,” says company spokesman Lorenzo Lopez. “With stores serving millions of customers in communities nationwide, it’s not uncommon for us to see our share of what happens every day in cities and towns all across the country.”…
* Of the 3,822 Walmart stores, 2,939 are Supercenters, which means they are open 24 hours a day. So in virtually every county, 500 people work at Walmart, and there is a Walmart open every hour of every day, and every one of those Walmarts is being visited by 37,000 people a week — that’s 220 people an hour, in every Walmart, in virtually every county in the whole country, every hour of the day.
So how come there are not more sociologists doing studies at or about Walmart? I suspect many do not like the place – even though some may even shop at Target and other big box stores. But just because sociologists might disagree with the practices of Walmart does not mean that it shouldn’t be the focus of much research.
This story also illustrates something Joel Best likes to talk about: the scale of numbers. Some of the statistics about Walmart from the article include half of American adults visit Walmart each week covering 70 million hours and the company has 1.5 million employees. This is hard to visualize because these are big numbers. We know what a couple of hundred people looks like but to understand 1.5 million, we might need to make some comparisons such as this is about the population of the City of Philadelphia or is around the same size as the metro area of Nashville or Milwaukee. Another way to understand these big numbers is to break it down into how often something happens per hour or minute or second. In this article, this translates to “that’s 220 people an hour, in every Walmart, in virtually every county in the whole country, every hour of the day.” We know what roughly 220 people looks like so we can then grasp a little better the enormity of the figures.
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