Something that often crosses the lips of anyone discussing shopping of any kind in America, is the word Walmart. Whether or not it is cross-referenced with utter disdain or whispered with suppressed glee, is left to the will of the speaker. But although there are few establishments which bear some similarities to what can be collectively known as the shame on America’s face, we really do not have anything quite like Walmart in Britain. There’s Sainsburys, Waitrose, Tesco, all of which are classified as supermarkets; Argos the catalogue store which sells everything but groceries and of course there’s Asda, once the British sister to the Walmart group. Yet even with the emergence of British supermarkets stocking an ever-growing selection of miscellany besides normal groceries, we still realise the importance of having the reserve for being able to buy something with true craftsmanship. The only place in Britain that can truthfully boast “everything under one roof”, is the incomparable emporium of luxury and glamour that is London’s Harrods. And even Harrods under a microscope is a collection of boutiques. No, the department store that is London’s 3rd biggest tourist attraction housing over 5000 staff within it’s palace, is shopping on QUITE another scale of variety; one which will burn the clothes off your back for the price of lunch, much less the humble pantalon pocket. Not quite your weekly food run.
Most British people are incredibly thankful that we don’t have such an unsightly problem to our landscape, but there are also the minority of Brits who secretly harbour a longing to be able to make one journey and come back with the contents of an entire house in your car. There is even the wager that this minority is actually much bigger than the nation’s conscience would fathom. So as a legal alien, what of my experiences with this controversial place?
Well at the prospect of grocery shopping in America, I should confess that yes, I succumbed much like any Briton to the initial curiosity; for the first few weeks living here were there a few Walmart runs for basic necessities. But you see, the joyous ringing peals of the exchange rate that ring in your ears, quickly die as a resident, because you’re not here on a mad transatlantic spree. Once I discovered exactly how this happened, I was absolutely furious. Unlike Britain, America does not have any one particular supermarket where absolutely everything you buy is cheaper than the next superstore. Let me explain.
With regards to groceries, here is a very general breakdown. In Britain, the supermarkets take full advantage of the fact that your choice of supermarket reflects your tax band. Those in the higher tax band will do their entire shop at Waitrose or Marks & Spencer, where the prices on everything are massively hiked up but in return you go home with premium quality produce, international imports. The disadvantage is that leading brand goods will always be dearer due to the mark-up. The exact same brands can be obtained at a cheaper price by downgrading your entire shopping to Sainsbury, a favourite for the tax band below and so on for Tesco, and finally Asda, at which point the price of leading brands are a bargain and quality of produce is quite basic. As a Briton living with these choices for 28 years, this whole system is rational math to me- I’ll always know what I’m getting. But in America, this is not so. Unbeknownst to the innocent foreigner, America doesn’t do “entire” downgrading. Some of Walmart’s stock is ridiculously marked-up for the fact that you’re paying for convenience. This makes absolutely no sense to the British system. Since Walmart is at the bottom of the supermarket chains, it “should” downprice absolutely everything. This is not so, and there are products you can obtain cheaper at a pricier supermarket.
Sadly the existence of Walmart in middle America has pulled down with it, absolutely everything within certain radiuses, town to town, city to city. How so? Foolish enterprises who have imitated the profit model that this company has adopted, have turned so many cities into a living Groundhog day. 30 miles from one county to another and there’s nothing to distinguish one strip mall from another, one shopping mall from another. Drive 5 miles east, north, west or south and dependant on which giant has purchased the land, the fast food outlets are in exactly the same place, the layout is identical within and without. Some say this is a comfort and provides convenience without change. But at what cost?
In all my travels I have failed to see anything quite as surprising as this anywhere else in the world. Those having been fortunate enough to grow up around boutiques, privately owned businesses, entrepreneurial ventures and consumer individualism can share my dismay. So much is compromised when variety is thrown out in favour of convenience. One thing that I will always hold dear, miss and love about Europe are the unforgiving displays of uniqueness, found in rare boutiques, corner shops and secret little coves of shopping delight; something found sparingly on this continent on only as coastal a place as New York or San Francisco. Ah but then, the rest of America does not consider New York to even be America. Touche.