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August 1, 2002

Fear and Loathing in Wal-Mart

So I was thinking about it the other day:   There isn't a single place on earth that I despise visiting more than our local Wal-Mart.   And the older I get, the more I hate it.

It's probably silly, but my loathing of Wal-Mart has become a matter of degree. For instance, I'm older this week than I was last week. In accordance with that, I now hate trips to Wal-Mart just a little more than I did last week, too.

Personal experience tells me that if Your Local Neighborhood Wal-Mart is what the world of big-time retailing is evolving toward, then we're all in for some pretty sour shopping experiences from here on out. Short of a federal penitentiary, where else can you witness the human condition in all its underwhelming mediocrity? Endless lines. Stifling crowds. Untamed, hyperactive kids. Parking-lot congestion. Broken jars of Vlasic dill pickles decorating (visually and aromatically) the floor of Aisle 174.

And every week or so, a minority of us well-mannered and hygiene-conscious types line up with the rest of our local population, and we all give Sam Walton's estate lots and lots of our money.

Why? Because of the prices, I guess. Wal-Mart has browbeaten so many manufacturers of so many brands of so many products that you can't go anywhere else and hope to find bargains comparable to the Everyday Low Low Prices that Sam's Army can slap on its inventory. (Actually, I'm not altogether sure that I'd qualify all of Wal-Mart's prices as "low." Sure, spending seventy-eight cents for a two-gallon vat of isopropyl rubbing alcohol seems like a good deal. But move a few aisles over, and Wal-Mart makes it all back on my wife's treasured Maybelline lipsticks and eyeshadows.)

Looking to save time and hassle the next time you need to hit Wal-Mart? That's easy to accomplish:

Drive a little farther, and shop Target.

However, if you're looking to save time, hassle, and money (ah, there's the rub) the next time you're ready to shop your local Wal-Mart, then that's tougher. But here are a few things that have worked for me:

    Always shop from a list. Or two.

Heading into Wal-Mart without a comprehensive To-Buy list (and sticking to it!) is like dropping off your car at a back-alley repair shop with the instruction, "Just do whatever it needs." Chances are, you've just pulled the pin on a financial hand grenade.

My wife and I have been Wal-Marting with a shopping list for as long as I can remember. But lately we began taking two separate lists: she has hers, and I have mine. And we create them separately.

As you might guess, I like to keep my weekly number of excursions to Wal-Mart to a bare minimum. In the past, whenever we'd use one list − usually created by her − we'd inevitably get home and figure out that we'd forgotten several items. Which meant that, sometime during the following week, Yours Truly would get to make a

(insert hearty game-show host voiceover here)

BONUS VISIT TO WAL-MART on the way home from WORK!

(end voiceover)

In an effort to avoid such misery, I bought a package of small legal pads. I keep them right on the breakfast nook, where they're earmarked for the specific purpose of writing down needed items during the week. As things come up, I scribble 'em down, and pronto.

The fact that our two lists will likely have overlapping items is hardly a problem. My list will have things that she didn't notice, and hers will have items that I missed. So we don't have to fight as many Wal-Mart battles as we did before.

Which brings me to my next tip . . ..

    Separate ... And Acquire

So we've penetrated the outermost defenses and made our way into Wal-Mart. I have my list in hand, and she has hers. We grab a cart. We split up. I head off to round up the things on my list, and she takes care of her items (and usually, the cart). In all fairness, I don't know how much time we save by doing it this way − I've never actually put a stopwatch to it − but I bet it's a not-too-shabby amount.

If nothing else, I feel like I'm speeding things up.   And as far as I'm concerned, lopping ANY amount of time off a trip to Wal-Mart is like a little slice of heaven.

    Live in the Bible Belt? Shop Sunday mornings.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the people now:   You ought to be in church on Sunday mornings! You ought to be basking in the Light of the Word of God! You ought to be −

Well, hold on there, Oral. I ought to be able to round up a week's worth of groceries without losing a solid two or more hours of my weekend and torqueing up my blood pressure in the process. So you take care of your home front in your way, and I'll take care of mine.

Truth is, I don't know why I didn't think of this sooner. In my part of the country, you'd be amazed how many people aren't in Wal-Mart on Sunday mornings. I usually try to get there around 9:15 am or so. The place won't be deserted or anything, but it won't be a circus, either. And the best part of this?   When you're done shopping − and I know this sounds unbelievable − you will actually find gum-smacking cashiers standing outside their registers, bored, just itching to tally up your stuff.

As a side note, I've also found Thursday evenings (6:30pm and later) to be significantly more tolerable than most other times.

Michael | August 1, 2002

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