Painting the church of Walmart

Lots of “normal” activities take place at Walmart so why not spiritual matters as well? Artist Brenden O’Connell has taken up the subject:

For the past decade, O’Connell has been snapping photographs inside dozens of Wal-Marts. The images have served as inspiration for an ongoing series of paintings of everyday life — much of which involves shopping, which O’Connell calls “that great contemporary pastime.”

“Wal-Mart was an obvious place” to look for inspiration, he tells The Salt. “It’s sort of the house that holds all American brands.”…

Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.

“There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”

In conversation, O’Connell comes across as thoughtful and urbane. He’s well aware that, as a company, Wal-Mart can be polarizing. But “regardless of your feelings about it,” he told me back then, “it just is. It’s like an irrevocable reality that’s part of our experience.”

On the occasions that we go to church and then Walmart afterward, I have joked that we are visiting America’s two kinds of churches. This may not be too far from reality considering the number of shoppers at Walmart, its yearly sales, and the power of its brand. But, it is really that surprising that a retail store could be the contemporary version of a spiritual space when our country is so devoted to consumption and shopping?

The new Ace Hardware home is badly proportioned

Ace Hardware has a new set of television commercials where they argue going to their neighborhood stores is like visiting your neighbor. However, there is one big problem (beyond the fact that many people don’t know their neighbors): the house is badly proportioned. Take a look:


The bottom portion of the house doesn’t look too bad: a porch, front door, and a two car garage. But, then look above. My best guess is that the Ace sign displaced the actual window which then got squeezed in between the roof line and the garage. Overall, it doesn’t look good. The neighbors would not be happy if the house next door looked like this.

Despite the odd looking house, I like the sales pitch. I was at Home Depot to get five items related to gardening this weekend. Due to the size of the store and my infrequent visits (perhaps once a month or so), I had to ask where three of the five items were because they were very difficult to locate otherwise.

Walmart opens stores on college campuses

Walmarts are everywhere in the United States – but only recently have they opened on college campuses.

In January 2011, Walmart opened its first location on a university campus at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, a half-hour drive from its corporate headquarters. Now, Walmart has announced that it will be opening a second campus location, at Arizona State University, with luck by May, according to Delia Garcia, a Walmart spokeswoman. A third location, at Georgia Tech, is slated to open at a to-be-determined time next year. “Walmart on campus is an opportunity to bring low prices to students, reach new customers and serve our on-campus customers in a convenient way,” Garcia said in an interview.

Garcia said that the products sold by the university stores would be “tailored to the on-campus customer, providing general merchandise, convenience items [and] pharmacy services,” as well as the store’s $4 generic prescription drug program. Garcia emphasized that the company was still “testing this format,” and as such there are no concrete plans beyond the Georgia Tech location. While the Arkansas location is 2,500 square feet, the Arizona location as planned will be 5,000 square feet. The ASU location will also offer financial and bill-paying services, and will employ 10 associates…

As has often been the case with Walmart, the expansion is not free of controversy. In an e-mailed statement, the labor group Making Change at Walmart criticized the company for paying what it says are insufficient wages, “while public institutions like ASU have faced painful budget cuts.”…

In addition, according to a spokeswoman for Making Change at Walmart, the University of Arkansas (via the university’s Applied Sustainability Center) and Arizona State (via the university’s Global Institute of Sustainability) are “the two universities Walmart picked to create its ‘Sustainability Index,’ which has been criticized for lacking meaningful standards and appears to have had little to no effect on suppliers’ product manufacturing processes.” Rob Walton, Walmart founder Sam Walton’s eldest son and current company chairman, is also co-chair of the Board of Directors for Sustainability at Arizona State.

So what is the deal behind the scenes between the colleges and Walmart? The colleges would want Walmart on campus because it can bring in money. Walmart wants to be close to a base of customers who want cheap goods.

How does this change life on campus? It could make it easier for students to remain on or around campus if they can buy things nearby. However, it could also change local town life.

Do the Walmarts have to follow the architectural rules or styles of the campuses to fit in? It would be kind of amusing to have a typical big box Walmart near traditional college buildings dignified in their brick and ivy.

In response to emergencies, companies seek out more distribution centers

A number of companies are now pursuing a new distribution center strategy in order to be better prepared for disasters and other disruptions:

Major storms like Hurricane Sandy and other unexpected events have prompted some companies to modify the popular just-in-time style of doing business, in which only small amounts of inventory are kept on hand, to fashion what is known as just-in-case management.v

The shift has led retailers and logistics companies to alter supply chains by adding distribution hubs, according to the CoStar Group, a real estate research firm in Washington. In turn, the hubs are creating real estate opportunities in markets on and off established distribution paths, including growth in markets outside the traditional seaport hubs on the East and West Coasts…

Just-in-case is a response to the vulnerability of just-in-time supply chains, said Rene Circ, CoStar’s director of industrial research. Since the 1990s, just-in-time has made sense for many companies looking to reduce the cost of keeping large inventories on hand. Technology enabled retailers and manufacturers to closely track and ship items to replace merchandise sold or components consumed in production…

The tendency toward numerous distribution facilities runs contrary to a strategy that was common just after the recession, when some companies sought efficiency by consolidating warehouse operations, according to Bob Martie, executive vice president for the New Jersey region at Colliers International, a real estate service provider.

Consumers may not pay much attention to this distribution chains. In fact, they may only really notice them when major events disrupt them. However, the distribution system is incredibly important for the American consumer economy. The reason products are on the shelves when consumers want them is due to this. Companies argue more efficient systems help them keep costs down. Better planning can reduce truck traffic on local roads.

This article adds another twist to the distribution center story: there is money to be made in distribution center real estate. Perhaps quite a bit of money.

You need a McMansion to take home all the bulk items from Costco

Here is one argument for why Americans need McMansions: they need space to hold all of the bulk items from places like Costco.

But what I require now is a special place to house the mountain of junk I buy at Costco, because it certainly doesn’t fit in my existing house.

I suppose some of you reading this live in Tuscan-style McMansions with huge pantries that could hold the yield from a dozen trips to Costco, plus a few sheep and goats on the side…

My problem is that I like the bulk savings you can get at Costco. But I don’t like the Costco bulk. I’m not kidding: At this exact moment, there’s a case of water bottles on my tiny kitchen floor, because I haven’t figured out exactly where to put it. Cardboard boxes full of lunch snacks sit on top, along with enough canned tuna to last at least until the Rapture comes.

Putting away Costco stuff requires several days of planning in my house, especially when I bring my children, which I try not to do.

This would fit the data that shows while the average size of the American household has decreased, the average size of the new homes has gone up.

It would be interesting to do some analysis on how the space in recent homes compares to space in houses from earlier years. One way to get more space in a house is to simply have more space to start with. But there are other ways. Have more and bigger closets and take space from elsewhere. It seems like a lot of the new houses on HGTV have two walk-in closets for the master bedroom. You could also cut down on the “middle” space of rooms in order to free up space for other uses. Large living spaces may be nice but they could require more furniture and many homeowners may not use all that space most of the time. Another way is to have fewer hallways and more “combined” rooms. The classic bungalow does this by often combining the living room, dining room, and a kitchen as the main thoroughfare through the house.

The growing sales share of big box stores

In recent years, big box stores have increased their share of overall retail sales:

In the past two decades, the share of sales going to the top general merchandise stores has soared from 47 percent annually to 73 percent, according to an analysis of census data by University of Oregon sociologist John Bellamy Foster and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign communications professor Robert McChesney…

“In pretty much every category, you’ll see that the biggest guys are a lot bigger today than they were 10 years or 20 years ago,” said Lawrence Ring, business professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

The implications of retail consolidation are varied: lower prices for consumers, but also less energetic hiring of workers and a more streamlined economy overall…

Whatever the big stores are doing has been working: Walmart’s U.S. sales last year were $308 billion. Target’s were $78 billion; Costco’s, $59 billion; Sears, $35 billion; Macy’s, $25 billion; Kohl’s, $18 billion; and J.C. Penney, $18 billion.

More points of evidence in a long-running discussion about the value of big box stores in the United States.

Another way you can tell how powerful these stores are: how many communities will turn them down if a big box store wants to open in the community and provide jobs plus tax revenues?

A disconnect: having electric car chargers at Costco

The story that Costco is getting rid of electric car chargers in their parking lots because of a lack of use could be taken in several directions. One could ask: doesn’t there need to be an infrastructure in place before electric car owners would go to Costco? But I think there is a more interesting question: are electric car users really the sort of people who would shop at Costco?

Costco is a big box store, plain and simple. They offer bulk goods at cheap prices. Their buildings are bland and surrounded by parking lots. Is this the sort of place that electric car users would go? Are there people who would shop at Costco but wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart (and I assume there are quite a few)? From a broader perspective, the picking and choosing between the “righteousness” of certain big box stores (Wal-Mart versus Target versus Costco versus Sam’s Club versus Home Depot…) is odd: they all operate on similar principles though their particular implementation varies some. To shop at any of them is to encourage standardization and sprawl. This doesn’t really go with the electric car culture/vibe.

So where should electric car chargers be installed? A few retail options: Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. I suspect these would get a lot more use.