The Awnings of Walmart: Adding Ugliness to All the Other Indignities Foisted on the Poor

Yves here. Lambert has a post on his latest visit to Walmart (rest assured Lambert goes to Walmart only when he has no other option). I liked the piece but he thought it had not quite jelled.

It’s yet another take on the degradation that Walmart inflicts on its associates and shoppers. The core observation:

Walmart is ugly, and makes the “consumers” who shop there look ugly, because that is what it is designed to do, as we see from the signage. It’s as if the Harkonnens had designed the quintessential American retail experience:

How typical of a Harkonnen fief, the Duke thought. Every degradation of the spirit that can be conceived. He took a deep breath, feeling rage tighten his stomach

Is it necessary to signal to customers that they are clearly getting a bargain because the Walmart is so cheap that it buys (presumably) off color, icky paint so they can pass the savings off to customers? That’s a branding issue rather than a cost issue, since Walmart buys in such ginormous volumes and bargains so hard that they’d get the finest prices on whatever they purchased, including paint.

Remember, low cost does not have to be ugly. Indeed, quite a few designers have made it a point of pride to create attractive objects and spaces for low-income groups. For instance, artist and social reformer John Ruskin helped fund an early series of low-income housing projects conceptualized and operated by Octavia Hill. Hill insisted that her tenants all have access to open spaces. She recognized that as important to their well being. She also successfully campaigned to keep London’s Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being converted from parks into suburban developments. Frank Lloyd Wright also designed inexpensive housing for workers (sadly never built because International Harvester instead chose temporary housing). More recently, Target has gone for featuring low-cost but attractive designs, to the extent that some are featured in high end magazines as stylish bargains. I’m sure reader can provide numerous other examples.

In fact, the poor can’t afford to be cheap. The move by big corporations towards more and more planned obsolescence, often via products designed not to last, is costly churn for middle class and richer consumers, but even more of a toll on lower-income buyers. Moreover, poor people will sacrifice to buy more attractive goods:

VisionSpring sells low-cost reading glasses to the working poor in India at prices ranging from $2 to $4. They enable a tailor, a weaver, or a jeweler to continue working after the age of 40. Although customers may save for a month or two before they are able to purchase the glasses, only 5% choose the “Ushas,” the least expensive and least attractive option. As Jordan Kassalow, founder and CEO of VisionSpring says, “Vanity isn’t monopolized by the rich.”

I’m a bit bothered by the judgmental comment by the CEO. Who doesn’t want to like what they see in the mirror? Moreover, these workers might correctly judge that higher-cohort status markers will help them in the workplace. There is a vast literature that shows that people judge the attractive more favorably.

So Lambert may not have quite nailed this post because it is a topic that is inherently tough to pin down. And Calvinist America, we are particularly mean-spirited toward the poor. We seem to lack the British concept of “cheap and cheerful,” that you can have a market niche of lower-priced goods and services that are still a pleasure to consume.

By Lambert Strether. Originally published at Corrente

Sadly I had to take the bus to Walmart (four hours round trip on public transportation). The service was horrible, and I had to go back a second time (total, eight hours) but there was no point losing my temper because clearly all the employees, er, associates, as well as their managers, were in the grip of a system that was being run more cheaply than possible. (I waited outside for the bus home next to some storage containers they had parked outside the building, gawd knows why, and heard a big electrical crackle come from one of them just before the bus arrived. Yikes.)

While I was there I took this picture, because it seemed to sum up a lot of my difficulties with the place:



This is, I believe, a “simpler than possible” awning. Rather it’s a notional awning, the dead idea of an awning. It’s above an area that serves bread, as you see, so I imagine it’s meant to convey the feel of a cheery patisserie. I’m not sure which is worse: The attempt to convey the feel, or success (if any) in the conveyance, because that would have meant such a horridly low baseline for inducing the feel. I hate everything about that awning and no, I don’t just strongly dislike it:

1) The colors are depressing and horrible. There don’t seem to be any primary colors in Walmart’s trade dress at all; I would call these dirty pastels, but I’m not enough of a colorist to know. The mentality is that of the client who thinks magenta (process red) is a substitute for red, and makes the switch, because it’s cheaper, and anyhow, who would notice? The fluorescent light and the camera are making the colors appear worse than they are, but not a lot worse, believe it.

2) The materials are cheap and too smooth. Particle board, plastic, stamped metal, plexiglass. And somebody’s got to clean that plexiglass.

3) The dead idea of an awning is rigid and immovable. Real awnings are mostly fabric, and movable. Even New York street awnings have shape!

4) Look at that nail or screw or whatever it is at top left and right. It looks like they’ve attached the fake awning to the frame with two screws at the top, and no screws at the bottom. Is the awning glued to the frame? Is it just held in place by gravity?

5) The word “Bread,” with its grey color and bland typeface, is just so discouraging. You could put any word up there in grey on the plexiglass and it would come out denatured. “Sex.” “Love.” “Hate.” And so forth. The signage should be in Cyrillic from the former Soviet Union. (The word “Revent” in script on the hood in the back is, therefore, quite subversive. But nobody noticed.)

6) At top left, where the notional awning meets the notional wall, there’s a visible gap. Shoddy workmanship, like shoddy design, and shoddy materials.

* * *
The architect Christopher Alexander has a wonderful, though eccentric, book called The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe. In it, he pairs images, and asks which image is more alive (and less dead) than the other.[1] So here’s one such pairing. Which awning on which bread store is more alive?



* * *
Walmart’s trade dress also reminds me of John Berger’s famous essay, “The Suit and the Photograph,”[2] based on this image from the German photographer August Sander’s Man of the Twentieth Century (1929 (!)), a typological catalogue of more than six hundred photographs of the German people. This is Peasants going to a dance, Westerwald, 1914 (!!):



Berger comments:

Now make an experiment. Block out the faces … with a piece of paper, and consider only their clothed bodies.

By no stretch of the imagination can you believe that these bodies belong to the middle or ruling class. They might belong to workers, rather than peasants; but otherwise there is no doubt. Nor is the clue their hands — as it would be if you could touch them. Then why is their class so apparent?

Is it a question of fashion and the quality of the cloth in their suits? In real life such details would be telling. In a small black and white photograph they are not very evident. Yet the static photograph shows, perhaps more vividly than in life, the fundamental reason why the suits, far from disguising the social class of those who wore them, underlined and emphasized it.

Their suits deform them. Wearing them, they look though they were physically mis-shapen. … None of their abnormalities is extreme. They do not provoke pity. They are just sufficient to undermine physical dignity. We look at bodies which appear coarse, clumsym brute-like. And incorrigibly so.

Walmart is ugly, and makes the “consumers” who shop there look ugly, because that is what it is designed to do, as we see from the signage. It’s as if the Harkonnens had designed the quintessential American retail experience:

How typical of a Harkonnen fief, the Duke thought. Every degradation of the spirit that can be conceived. He took a deep breath, feeling rage tighten his stomach

Of course, I’m putting myself in the mind of a Duke in that quote; my own class bias, and the good luck to have read the book, many times, and to have the art of retaining quotations. My parents would never have dressed like that; they were professors! And as for me, I can still pass….

Working people should have excellent clothes and beautiful places to shop. Why the fuck don’t they?

NOTE [1] Maybe not such a crazy idea after all, that things like salt shakers can be more or less alive.

NOTE [2] I had the same sensation returning to the States last year and seeing anew how people dress.

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  1. jrs

    Somewhat higher cost, I think it’s an open secret that people shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and so on because they in some ways try to be an enjoyable shopping experiences and THEY CHARGE FOR IT (I don’t think they entirely succeed in being more enjoyable, I think they somewhat succeed). It’s not just about organics etc.

    It’s probably assumed those stores are targeting this top 10% or 20% or something. But I doubt they need it as much. I suspect the real appeal is not to those to those top 10-20% servants of the social order whose work feels self-actualizing and whose work days include exposure to natural light (or at least the window seat or the corner office of the managers) but to those who don’t but can still afford the cost, because if your office is a gray drab dark satanic cubical with no natural light, and work and self-actualization never to be used in the same sentence, and your position in the work hierarchy clear, and the days long and the commutes dreary, and the free time minimal, and the chores necessary and run on your precious weekend, you’d rather not shop somewhere drab if you can afford not to.

    As for ugly I always have memories, that may not be that accurate, of Fedco being the ugliest store imaginable, but it does have an interesting history:

    1. MikeNY

      Wal-Mart is dismal and depressing and I categorically refuse to shop there.

      I like Trader Joe’s. The staff are unfailingly pleasant and helpful (e.g., ask if they carry an item, and they take you to it), and I find it reasonably priced. I also understand that their pay and benefits are much better than many retail stores.

      I dislike Whole Foods, because the prices are often ridiculous (“Whole Paycheck”), the staff is often surly, and I got e. coli from their salad bar. Grrrr.

      1. optimader

        “Sadly I had to take the bus to Walmart ”
        Had to go or made the value judgment that it was worth the personal turmoil?

        “In fact, the poor can’t afford to be cheap. ”
        Is your take away sentence. Unfortunately (most?) people are not capable/interested enough to critically examine much of the crap they buy to mentally disassemble how it will fail, and more importantly what is a higher value alternative that will get the job done.
        Needs vs perceived wants. Five crappy flannel shirts that will dissolve or one good Pendleton or micro fleece? A series of crappy Mr. Coffees or a Bodum French Press and a water kettle? Ironically enough, the FP cost no more than a Mr. Coffee and I’ve had mine for going on 25 years. Replaced the glass carafe once, and makes supremely better coffee. Who cares? seemingly not many people.

        Want the perfect soft boiled egg?

        Sunbeam figured it out in 1952, you don’t need a shiny black plastic snapped together with brushed stainless steel foil accenting, piece of Chinese crap appliance w/ USB port and membrane LED touchpad w/ a green “eco-mode” button that is underlyingly designed w/a foil strip heating element destined to fail in an actuarially established out of warranty number of cycles. Ah, but the psyops over-engineered packaging provides a small neuro-hit when purchasing and opening the prize home.

        Yesterday I went to a bigbox store to exchange CO2 bottle for my carbonator (I have yet to arrange the fitting to refill my self). The mountains of crap at the customer service area was breathtaking. Walmart blows, but it take two to tango.
        Consumer policy wise, people have to make the decision to stop being taken advantage of –when that opportunity exists.

          1. optimader

            Sorry Mike, I just threw the comment against the wall to see if it would stick. mutual sentiments back at you!

  2. sd

    Home Depot is a massive chain box store with a raw cement floor that sells wood and hardware. And yet, the environment is generally cheerful right down the cartoon mascot of a carpenter. Costco is a warehouse but the general spirit of the place with free samples and testers gives a bit of a festive market square feel.

    Walmart has no excuse, they offer only a consumption factory. Conclusion: they hate their customers. It’s that simple.

    1. Larry

      I think Wal-Mart embodies the full spirit of the Walton families pure desire to enrich themselves as much as possible. They have become so consumed with their share price and personal wealth that it has carried over to the professional management. Wal-Mart looks cheap because the managment from top down is too pennywise to hire staff to stock shelves or tidy the store before customers arrive. They’re so cheap that they can’t abide increasing knowledgeable full-time staff that might help customers and retain loyalty. It’s a self-cannabilizing business model that will exhaust itself unless the Waltons themselves simply accept their mega-wealth. Bigger business empires, retail or otherwise, have collapsed for lesser reasons than Wal-Mart.

      1. Nonanon

        Self-cannabilizing, exactly! On the way down from shipping jobs to a slave labor police state, they pocketed the difference. The devil couldn’t have planned it any better.

        And that IS the rest of the story!

    2. scott

      Home Depot: Do not confuse “cheerfulness” with helpfulness. There was a time 20 years ago when a HD employee had actually held a tool in their hand, but those days are long gone. After seeing firsthand their return policy on shoplifted items it seems that the orange aprons are there to deter theft rather than to help. To this day half of my trips to HD result in me leaving empty-handed. What I was looking for was either no longer carried or has been replaced by an inferior brand so that comparison shopping with Lowe’s is impossible.

      1. sd

        I purposefully did not address service. Used to be the clerk in electrical was in fact a skilled electrician.

        A bigger problem in my eyes is that the suppliers have to pay to get their products in to Home Depot’s shelves which often means inferior products crowd out quality. Hence, screws made out of pot metal instead of steel.

        1. joe bob

          ah. now I understand why the heads on the decks screws get stripped so easily.

          I sure got tired of using vice grips to remove them damn deck screws.

          its a consistent problem. and I do not find home depot that cheap.

          now that I have that insight I will look for a better source. but the smaller hardware stores in my community have all closed down.

          1. sleepy

            There is an Ace Hardware in my town, where the clerks will walk you through just about any project and spend 10 minutes helping you find the right two screws. I believe Ace is an owner cooperative and not a franchise. The local big box–Menards–is an impossible maze in which to find any product, let alone a clerk.

            You can frequently tell if an establishment is a decent place by the fact that the same clerks and cashiers have been working there for years.

  3. ambrit

    I have worked the construction side of a number of box stores, not, thankfully, WalMart, but enough to know that the plans and design all come out of a minimalist, cost saving mindset. Nothing that is unnecessary to the basic function is done. Signage is pre packaged at the factory and shipped to the project. For some reason unknown to mere mortals, the instructions were generally bad translations from a foreign tongue. Hence, much of the “incidental” detail in these stores looks cheap because it is cheap, almost terminally so. The sensibilities of people are not even a consideration.
    An anecdote from my time in box store land will make the point. I was installing some dairy coolers in a Delchamps food store in Mandeville Louisiana. (I was an employee of a subcontractor.) A second level job foreman told me to let the condensate drain lines sit down in a floor drain. “We’ve got to get this job done fast. Speed it up.” Code just about everywhere requires condensate outfall lines to be held up above the flood rim of the receiving drain. Otherwise you end up with a potential cross connection between a food storage space and the building sewer. A big no no in food safety. In other words, not just a Sanitary Code violation, but a Health Code violation too. I probably wasted more time explaining to this man why I wasn’t going to do this time saving measure than it would have taken me to properly secure several of these condensate drains. Thankfully, the people I was working for understood the basic issue and backed me up. (Their licenses would have been in jeopardy if such a faux pas had come to light later.) That assistant job foreman was almost solely focused on the speed with which this project could be completed. He did not understand the reasons for much that was going on in the project, and didn’t seem to really care. It is one thing to not understand something and hire experts to do it for you. It is quite another thing to hire experts and then ignore them. Many times, crapification, (lovely word,) is based on short term thinking. Nature doesn’t work like that. The payback can be…dead people.
    The Delchamps food store chain had been bought out by Cerebrus Capital, and Cerebrus had an ‘overseer’ keeping an eye on the project. Cerebrus was reopening Delchamps stores exclusively in upper income areas. Now you see this everywhere. Where do you find Whole Foods? In the rich towns and suburbs, often near Universities. Where do you find Save a Lot stores? Next to the ghettoes and trailer parks.

    1. John Zelnicker

      ambrit — And now, Delchamps is no more. It was always a good, locally-owned grocery store with reasonable prices (my family shopped there for decades), but competition and mismanagement by family executives doomed it.

      1. ambrit

        Yes, Delchamps was a good store. I used to get beef marrow bones from the butcher for making soup. (You had to ask, but once that was out of the way, cooperation was the order of the day.) Most of the regional mid market stores are gone, which is a shame because they responded to local likes and peculiarities. Those smaller mini chains I have entered recently are moving towards the Whole Food model. Catering to the high end market, which really squeezes the poorer among us. Just because someone is poor doesn’t automatically preclude them from appreciating quality and nutritional value. I know that Phyllis and myself spend more for food as a percentage of our budget than even as late as five years ago.
        Eat well! Eat hearty!

          1. ambrit

            Oh yes we do. The big Schwegmans store on Veterans out in Metaire had everything, and cheap too. Schwegman got big enough to have its’ own bank, with branches in the stores. The Slidell store now houses a Rouses food store, one of the small chains emulating the Whole Food model.
            Remember Katz and Besthoff? They even had their own lines of beer and liquor. I preferred Dixie for beer. Made in New Orleans and once voted one of the ten best beers in America by an association of European brewmasters. We’ve still got some purple K&B stuff around the house.
            Here’s hoping that when the big crash comes we can revive regional businesses.

            1. sleepy

              Hey, I’ve got a bottle of Schwegmann’s old Piety and Burgundy bourbon, named after its original store at that address.

              K and B, of course. 99 cent breakfast specials–two eggs, grits, toast or biscuits, bacon, ham, or sausage, and coffee. And I almost forgot . . . . . .K&B hearty burgundy wine, also at 99 cents, lol.

              Lived in Nola from 1971 to 1998 in Bywater and Marigny. Shopped mostly at the Schwegmanns at Elysian Fields and St. Claude. Remember the days when they sold draft beer that you could walk around the store and drink while you shopped.

              1. ambrit

                You lived down by the Quarter then. I remember going to parties at a professors house just by Esplanade and Royal. That was about as close to a European city as you could get in North America I was told by a man I knew who was from, I believe, Lyon in France. I met my wife in a Health Food shop on Magazine up by the bus barn. She worked there and went to Delgado for fine art study. She had an aunt who lived in Bywater for all her life. Phyllis remembers taking the streetcar down Canal Street and transferring to the Metairie bus to get home, which was near Airline Highway in the wilds of Metairie.
                Remembering this convinces me that there has been a seismic shift in how we live in America, and not for the better. There appears to have been a major diminution in personal “wa” or inner peace on the part of the average person. I know that we, in our ongoing search for a reasonable place to retire to, are focusing on the community “feel” of the towns we visit. So far, we not being members of any particular “in group,” the search has been an education in disfunction and decay.
                We hope you and yours have found that golden land flowing with milk and honey.

                1. John Zelnicker

                  I lived in NOLA from 1981 to 1986, most of the time just off St. Charles Ave. near Touro Infirmary where my younger child was born. The K&B was right around the corner at Louisiana Ave. Now I’m in Mobile, Ala., which is very much like New Orleans in the feel of the place. Both cities were founded at about the same time by the same two brothers from France.

                  You are right, ambrit, there has been a sea change in the past thirty years and very much not for the better.

                  BTW, if you’re ever in Mobile or passing through, look me up, I’m not hard to find.

  4. Eclair

    Gosh, Lambert, your ‘rant’ makes me feel so much less alone in my crankiness aimed at the production of ugly, cheap, plastic stuff designed and built to give the masses the feeling that they are filling their lives.

    Last week, in my ongoing attempt to clean out my in-laws’ house, I spent a morning emptying a hall closet. It was where my mom-in-law had stored her holiday decorations. At the end, I had four 30 gallon garbage bags stuffed with plastic: pastel eggs and bunnies, pumpkins, witches and black cats, santas and christmas trees, turkeys. And, I am still finding bouquets of dust-covered plastic flowers tucked in odd corners.

    The next day, after a visit to the ‘transfer station’ (what is this, an intermediate stop on the journey to the miles-wide floating plastic detritus scum in the ocean?), I visited the new house of one of my husband’s relative’s Amish friend. She apologized because it was still in an unfinished state; her nephews would do the final work after the snow shut down their outside work for the winter. The two finished rooms, the large kitchen and sitting room, are beautiful. Floors made from hemlock boards, the counter work area covered in stainless steel, cabinets made by her skilled woodworker nephews and brothers, simple double hung windows covered with dark-blue curtains. The walls and ceiling are painted in a restful shade of light blue. Scatter rugs, made from recycled old clothes, covered the floor. The kitchen stove, almost the size of a Smart Car, has clean simple lines with a gleaming black finish. It provides the heat for the house, as well as the cook top and oven. No plastic in sight.

    We sat in amazingly comfortable wood rocking chairs, made by local Amish craftsmen (and women), and rocked peacefully in the gathering dark of the winter solstice, basking the the warmth of the stove, until she rose to light a few of the oil lamps that stood around the room on wooden wall brackets. Simple beauty soothes the soul.

    1. Ulysses

      Nice comment!

      “To this ‘cheapening of production’, as it
      was called, everything was sacrificed: the happiness of the workman at
      his work, nay, his most elementary comfort and bare health, his food,
      his clothes, his dwelling, his leisure, his amusement, his
      education–his life, in short–did not weigh a grain of sand in the
      balance against this dire necessity of ‘cheap production’ of things, a
      great part of which were not worth producing at all.”

      –William Morris

      Aesthetic revulsion can also be a strong driver of rebellion against the status quo!

    2. optimader

      “until she rose to light a few of the oil lamps ”
      Right Whale oIl is the least sooty, best flame color..

    3. knowbuddhau

      Great story, thanks Eclair. To be surrounded by the product of caring craftspeople, who by attention to little things produce great beauty effortlessly, is a wonderful thing.

      And thanks Ulysses, that brought tears to my eyes. That’s exactly my experience.

      And thanks, Lambert. I’m always on about the same kind of things. Only the rich are deemed to deserve beauty. Can’t count the number of times I’ve seen things deliberately made ugly. Everybody deserves beauty, in my opinion. Not because they’re important or rich or whatever, just because they are.

      I’ve worked on some breath-takingly beautiful buildings in my time. I spent the summer of 2001 painting on the San Juan Island estate of Steve Miller (the musician, kids). I helped paint a brand new barn that was so beautiful I didn’t realize it was a barn until I saw it at a distance.

      And I’ve seen some deliberate uglification. Especially in apartments. Owners all but come right out and say, “They’re just renters, those people don’t deserve beauty.”

      I remember reading somewhere about an ancient Greek of whom it was said, he goes forth seeking ugliness that he may beget beauty. Or was it, we go forth seeking…? Either way, beauty at its best isn’t about showing off, it’s about becoming transparent to transcendence, letting the light of eternity shine through. The best kind of beauty happens of itself. It’s a real delight to look at something and go, holy crap, I can’t believe I did that.

      One last thing that others have mentioned. I lucked into a job as the caretaker for a waterfront vacation rental. It’s a beautiful setting for a beautiful house (as long as one doesn’t take too close a look). People do look their best surrounded by beauty. And not just look, they feel better, too. Beauty brings out the best in us. It’s my favorite thing about having friends and family over. It taught me to do what I do around here not for the benefit of an absentee owner who has no love for this unique spot anyway, but for my working-class peers.

      The way of the Walton’s, on the other hand, is to crapify the world, blaming the victims for not deserving beauty in the first place.

  5. Clive

    A good friend of mine was “lucky” enough to win a sub contract for the HVAC installation on the new Asda (Walmart’s name for their British Trojan horse operation after the U.S. brand was finally identified as hopelessly toxic here) and was shocked at the Design imposed on the fit out. Large Rooftop units (RTUs) with long duct runs (rare to be specified here because of their basic inefficiency compared with more typical VRF systems and distributed fan coils) and no heat recovery from the chillers / freezer display cabinets.

    My contractor friend correctly identified there would be a problem conditioning the “deep space” at the back of the store where the heat load from the rotisserie / hot food servery area would be a problem and there was insufficient ventilation to satisfy building regs. Rather than do a complete redesign, which was really warranted, half a dozen mini splits were all that head office would authorise. These was tacked on and would never be an effective solution because while the cooling and heating loads were satisfied technically, the airflow would be uneven and what should have been fitted were 10 to 12 5kw units rather than 6 10kw ones. To “solve” the ventilation requirement, an extract only exhaust was installed which sucked (it did indeed suck, big time) air in through the entrance, through the store and, eventually, to the back where it was needed. This, of course, increases the energy input required to condition the overall space. Crazy.

    Lowest first cost but over the 20 year lifespan of the equipment, it would be far higher in terms of running costs. Oh, and it was a case of sod the carbon footprint as far as Walmart was concerned.

    Long term, this is going to be a broken business model.

    1. ambrit

      Mr. Clive;
      This might be a broken business, but the model here isn’t about the business itself, but about the front end rent extraction. (I realize you already know this, preaching to the choir and all that, but the point must be made again and again. I call it the Big Truth model. The Big Lie method turned on its’ head.)
      At one point I was desperate enough to look into applying for a position as Maintenance at a local WalMart outlet. Well sod me. What WalMart calls maintenance, everyone else calls janitor. All for minimum wage too. Someone at WalMart headquarters has read Orwell, and understood him too.

      1. Clive

        Yes, you’re right to point out the difference between what Walmart considers a business model and what the textbooks say about it. The only question I have on the subject is whether or not Walmart realises that it has become a snake eating its own tail and mistaking that for a healthy balanced diet or whether it is fully cognisant of that and simply doesn’t care. Neither is logical and neither is viable for more than 10 or 20 years, but perhaps that timeframe has no meaning for Walmart and its investors.

        The only good thing is that when the end comes, it comes very quickly and the timing usually catches out the greediest who think that they’ll get out before the fat lady sings having got some Greater Fool to be left nursing the losses (people interested in how these sorts of business come unstuck can research the rise and fall of Tesco in the past year — being highly operationally geared it only takes a few bad quarters).

        1. ambrit

          The greater systemic problem with the Catastrophist Business Cycle Model you refer to is that these are industries, yes, industries now, with significant lead times for new plant build out or refurbishment of older plant to be accomplished. When WalMart goes under, there will be a mid term vacuum to be filled that I do not see anyone capable of filling quickly. This will be a textbook case of TINA meets Supply Destruction. (Where is Godzilla Foods when you need them?)

  6. TV

    NIce (NYC) elitism Yves.

    So Lambert forces himself to go to WalMart, then disses it to make himself feel better for choosing to go to WMT. Nice whine about nothing.

    WMT as Rorschach for yuppies and NYC socioeconomic elitism. To broad? Just your socioeconomic elitism. Or your own “intellectualism” creating an issue where there is none.

    Go in. Buy stuff cheap/cheaper. Leave. <— LoL Apparently, that simple equation is a bit tough for Lambert. Poor guy.

    Does Lambert need a Bahwambulance for his emotional and aesthetic distress over something else that matters not? Maybe just in case? To make sure he's not overwhelmed?

    As if this matters given the larger issues you write about.

    1. mad as hell.

      You must be that same hurried individual that cuts in front of the line at a bank or store or theater and when someone says, “You’re skipping the line”!
      You tell them, how rude they are for opening their mouth for bringing it to your attention.

      1. ambrit

        Yes. Try doing that at a Food Bank or Labour Finders and hope your insurance is paid up. (Nothing sharpens elbows like a little deprivation. Trust me on this. I know.)

    2. Whine Country

      The larger issues? I think Lambert is using Walmart as a metaphor for the larger issue of the crapification of our economy, and this being a site devoted to economics, among other things, it is wholly appropriate. Your critique seems to be based on your idea that he is to be taken literally, with I think is wrong. Even if you give those in charge the benefit of the doubt and use another less perjorative word than “crapification” is there any debate that our economy has been degraded substantially? OK, let’s talk about the benefits of this degradation and relate it to the important matter of TPTB. The only benefit that I see is to the Walton Family and Larry pretty much summed up what’s up with them in another post. There is a fundamental issue in all of this that I see that is extremely important to the issues raised here. The Walton Family proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the ultra rich can never have enough and there is no reason to believe that they will ever change their behavior up to and including the point that they have everything. This is a serious matter and hopefully this is a place where we can discuss what can be done short of resorting to violence. That is a very large issue in my book.

  7. TV

    NIce (NYC) elitism Yves.

    So Lambert forces himself to go to WalMart, then disses it to make himself feel better for choosing to go to WMT. Nice whine about nothing.

    “…foisted on the poor.” Thanks for fighting the good fight Lambert. Want a Purple Heart?

    WMT as Rorschach for yuppies and NYC socioeconomic elitism. To broad? Just your socioeconomic elitism. Or your own “intellectualism” creating an issue where there is none.

    Go in. Buy stuff cheap/cheaper. Leave. <— LoL Apparently, that simple equation is a bit tough for Lambert. Poor guy.

    Does Lambert need a Bahwambulance for his emotional and aesthetic distress over something else that matters not? Maybe just in case? To make sure he's not overwhelmed?

    As if this matters given the larger issues you write about.

    1. OIFVet

      A PR flack making the rounds? My grandfather used to say, “I am too poor to buys cheap stuff”. He only had a fourth grade education but wisdom is not something that edumacation instills. Walmart’s cheap prices simply come at too high a cost. Almost $2 million per store in taxpayer subsidies. Too much to count in supplier costs and associated social costs. Walmart may only charge $2 for that trinket, but in the end we end up paying far more for it in indirect costs. I will not bother asking about whether any of this causes you emotional distress. Lack of conscience generally protects people from emotional…inconveniences.

      1. DJG

        Great comment from OIFVet. My grandfather had about four years of education (in the Russian Empire, yikes). He also didn’t buy crap. He knew bargains, but he was trained as tailor and was an amazingly snappy dresser. The difference now is that people seem to have been induced to believe that a pile of crap in a big-box store is somehow related to their personal freedom. Sheesh.

        1. OIFVet

          Our grandparents’ generation is proof that poverty did not entail lack of pride in personal appearance, or appreciation of beauty of all types. Nowadays, it fashionable for TPTB to criticize the poor for spending money on beautiful things or quality-made things, rather than spending money on the cheapest, ugliest crapified items. This even as all of us are relentlessly bombarded with TPTB advertisements about what is fashionable, and as the poor are criticized for not dressing “professionally” or “with taste”, or if they dress in such manner, for spending money on such clothing. Why oh why are the poor not expected to appreciate beauty, and criticized if they do? It’s effing insidious.

          1. windsock

            To which I say “fuck ’em”. I shop online and in sales, where “big ticket” items often come in at 20-30 per cent of shop price.. I don’t care if stuff is a few years “out of fashion/date” as long as it is well made and suits my aesthetics. And I’m on welfare. People ask me how I dress so well, usually with the implied criticism I should not. I tell them I’d rather spend my cash on looking and feeling good, even if it means living of pearl barley stews, mis-shapen vegetables and cheap cuts of meat (which are nonetheless nutritious for that). Welfare queen my arse. Welfare self-respect.

      2. not_me

        Enough with the trinket comments. Walmart stuff is NOT necessarily a poor value (Value = Quality/Price) nor is stuff made in China necessarily poor quality either. I smell a good deal of pathetic job protectionism in those type remarks and I remember all too well when US cars, for example, union-made no less, were crap. It took foreign competition to end that.

        That said, the poor often cannot afford good value and must live day-to-day, being unable, for example, to buy and store in economical quantities.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Wow, do you have this wrong. I was at HBS in the late 1970s and reading the management press at the time. The problems with US cars were widely discussed as a symbol of what was wrong with American management. And that was proven with NUMMI, a joint venture between Toyota and GM. Toyota took a GM plant with the worst GM workers and labor relations, bar none, and got it to produce cars that scored better than GM averages on all quality metrics and met the defect level of Toyata cars produced in Japan.

          And it’s the same US management that sent jobs overseas by refusing to manage. Easier to have Chinese subcontractors do the real work.

        2. sleepy

          Aside from your take on the auto biz, I agree with you.

          I am retired and on a limited income and while I can afford to buy a winter coat for my three year old granddaughter at WalMart for $24.99, it becomes far more problematic to buy one at Penney’s for $64.99–yes the very same Penney’s that was the most middle, middle-class store in existence during my 50s childhood.

        3. OIFVet

          You strike me as a potential FEMA camp conspiracy aficionado (“buy and store in economical quantities”), so let me ask you: when the gubmint forcibly resettles you into FEMA camps don’t you want your trailer to be free of formaldehyde outgassing from that cheap yet “high-quality” Chinese plywood used in its construction? Somehow I doubt you want to be mummified like Lenin in your very own FEMA Mausoleum. Then there was the fiasco with cheap, “high-quality” Chinese drywall in Florida a few years ago. Is that your alleged “high quality”, comrade?

      3. scott

        I pay $1000 a year in county hospital taxes to subsidize WalMart’s prices, but I still won’t shop there.

    2. Clive

      If WMT’s management and proposition is so hot, why is it seriously considering quitting the UK because it can’t (because of proper competition which is protected by sensible zoning and monopoly restrictions) totally dominate all markets ? When it has to fend off other players on an equal level playing field, it flounders.

      Here, only so many people are willing to put up with cheap tat sold in grim stores at not particularly cheap prices when they can access either cheap stuff sold cheaply in cheaply fitted out stores by staff who are for the most part reasonably cheerful because they’re paid above the industry average or good quality items sold at modestly higher but not outrageous prices in well thought out (swanky even) stores just as conveniently as at WMT. Yes, WMT has taken advantage of the U.S.’s unique characteristic of population densities. But everything else about it fails to localise when WMT tries to export it. It’s your classic “Galapagos” business. Sooner or later these always get found out when exposed to real competition.

      1. Whine Country

        One of the few areas where we, the USA, have what economists call a “comparative advantage”. Lucky us.

  8. Carolinian

    This may be the lamest thing I’ve ever read on this site. Believe me the people who shop at Walmart aren’t looking at the awning and could care less. For them a store is just a place to buy things, not a lifestyle statement. But to the extent that they do pay any attention to the decor they probably like it or at least don’t hate it. Of course mediocre commercial architecture is hardly confined to Walmart. Spend much time in America lately? We are a utlitarian country full of utilitarian people. And it’s certainly not about being “poor” since America, that place unvisited, isn’t that poor to begin with. Perhaps what is really meant is uneducated, unable to appreciate the finer things.

    Yes this does reek of class snobbery. Honestly.

    1. ambrit

      Oh come on now Carolinian. I’ve secretly had inverse class snobbery myself for a long time. It’s part of being a human being.
      As for Utilitarianism, well pardner, that term covers a lot of territory, some of it better left un explored. Not poor? How about deferring needed medical treatments because of financial issues while the neighbor down the block has plastic surgery for social identification reasons? That’s utilitarian, isn’t it? One person doesn’t have enough money and so must die earlier than is possible. The other gets a nice pointy nose just for the fun of it. (No more silent bullying from the peers. Yay!) This argument can be exported world wide, it covers a lot of territory as well.
      It all comes down to the allocation of available resources. There’s the battleground.

    2. OIFVet

      Utilitarian design does not imply inherent ugliness. Yet this is what Walmart is. You may be right that people who shop there may not necessarily pay conscious attention to the decor, but one does not have to consciously consider the surroundings to be emotionally influenced by them. On the whole, I find Walmarts to be hopelessly depressing places, and I think that is expressed by the demeanor of both patrons and “associates”. Yes, I do shop there on occasion too, and no I don’t think of myself as being too good and educated for Walmart. Good design does not have to be expensive to be welcoming and not be a soul-killer.

      1. Carolinian

        I shop at Walmart all the time and consider my soul undeadened. We do have a Target with all those fancy Michael Graves graphics across town but why drive all that way? Btw in a long ago life I was a film critic for an alt weekly so I’m not immune to aesthetic considerations. But, all credit to the great people who run this site, this is a silly commentary. Ordinary people have other things to find beautiful…their children’s faces for example. The notion that our temples of materialism should be aesthetically appealing just reinforces the idea that consumption is a desirable form of activity. Frank Lloyd Wright is mentioned in the above post but his notoriously leaky and impractical (but wonderfully beautiful) buildings are probably the last thing any poor person needs. Jimmy Carter and his Habitat for Humanity, on the other hand, builds houses for poor people that are quite undistinguished looking–ugly even. But none of the recipients seem to be complaining. After all the roofs don’t leak.

        1. OIFVet

          The notion that our temples of materialism should be aesthetically appealing just reinforces the idea that consumption is a desirable form of activity.

          Surely you are not arguing that Walmart is some sort of fighter against consumption? These are public buildings, as such they owe the public something more than the drab, depressing interiors. To me, those communicate utter contempt for the mark, pardon, the “consumer.” And then there are the notoriously dangerous Walmart parking lots…

          1. Carolinian

            You know a few years back Walmart, victims of Target envy and at the behest of consultants, tried to make their stores more like Target in order to woo a more middle class customer base. They reduced the number of items in inventory, took the display clutter out of the aisles and did away with the cloth department since future non-peasant shoppers wouldn’t stoop to sewing their own clothes. And guess what…the public hated it. Their same store sales took a big hit. After a few months they restored the clutter and brought back the cloth sections (in some stores, not all). The truth is that Sam Walton knew his targeted, and at the time underserved, demographic a lot better than some the commenters here. The people shopping at Walmart don’t say “I wish this was Target.” They say “thank God this isn’t Dollar General.” The Walmart philosophy is bare bones with a little more quality and class but not that much more. And that’s the way their customers like it–go figure.

            Of course their sales are down because of the economy and because they’ve cut hours excessively. Even Walmart shoppers don’t like to stand in line at the checkout. And they are hardass anti-union which is not a good thing but also not that unusual. However just to repeat: nobody who shops at Walmart gives a rip about awnings. It’s the anti-Target.

            1. OIFVet

              What do peasants and the rich have in common? Both get their clothes and footwear custom made. What you are pointing out is an example of a flawed market research that resulted in inventory that did not appeal to the targeted market segment. It had nothing to do with decorating choices. The fact that Walmart does not have enough workers to even keep the shelves stocked hardly helps them to win over customer loyalty. The example you gave about Habitat housing: same thing. “Beggars can’t be choosers” exists for a reason, it is a prime example of how humiliation can be charity-driven. And let’s say that no one in the target group gives a damn about awnings. Then why have them in the first place rather than the Walton’s pocketing the savings or passing them on to their customers? Doing something half-a$$ is much worse than not doing it at all. But that’s just elitist me, one generation removed from my peasant roots and rather missing some aspects of peasant life that I knew from spending summers with my peasant grandparents.

              The peasants in BG cared a great deal about aesthetics though, it was a way to add a color and beauty to a hard existence and back-breaking work on a small farm. So they dressed as well as they could when not at work, decorated their houses with traditional elements inside and out, and elaborate paint schemes on the wooden architectural elements on the facades, took a great pride in their flower gardens, which would be prominently featured in front of the house where passerby would get to see them, etc. Everything I have seen and experienced leads me to believe that people want beauty in their lives, regardless of their class status.

              Perhaps you are right and Walmart truly knows their target consumer. If so, the comparison between Walmart’s target demographics and the common peasant is devastating for the Walmart shopper. Personally, I would like to give the Walmart shopper more credit than that. To say that they don’t care strikes me as dismissive of their tastes and preferences. Why could it not be that a lousy, exploitative retailer with a captive audience simply imposes its aesthetic on them? It is not like trends are consumer-driven even most of the time. It is, generally speaking, TPTB that drive the trends and expect the people to get with it. Anyway, I apologize to have struck a nerve with you, we will just have to agree to disagree on this.

              1. Bridget

                “What do peasants and the rich have in common? Both get their clothes and footwear custom made.”

                Not since Walmart came to town! When I was a young mother in rural Texas, I sewed my children’s clothing, and many of my own. I will never forget when we got our first Walmart. I could purchase little girls shorts, with waistband, belt loops, fly front zipper, front and back pockets, cuffs, good quality twill fabric…..all for the cost of a pattern! It would take me hours and hours to sew a pair of shorts with that kind of detailing, not to mention the cost of the fabric, thread, zipper, pattern, hook and eye, etc. I never again sewed anything but Halloween costumes for my kids to wear.

                Walmart was and is a boon to small town and rural dwellers. They love their Wally World and most of you people making nasty comments have absolutely no clue what you are talking about.

                1. Lambert Strether

                  Walmart killed my local hardware store and a bunch of other local stores. Because it underpays its workers so badly, I end up subsidizing it through my taxes (state and local taxes, too). So I’m paying for part of your little girl’s underwear both in money and in quality of life. Glad to do it. No thanks needed.

                  (I’m surprised there were literally no other retail establishments, such that the choice was Walmart or nothing. I doubt that situation applies very many places. I mean, Walmart tends to move into existing markets and cannibalize them, not make new ones.)

                  1. Bridget

                    Ah yes, the local five and dime, the local hardware store, the local plumbing supply company, the local fabric shop, the local women’s clothing store, the local grocer……most of them in the three towns near me were crap stores with limited inventory. Plus, you had to travel all over town to get the things you needed instead of one stop shopping. Or order from the Sears catalog and wait. Or drive into the city because what you wanted simply was not available locally.

                    1. Yves Smith Post author

                      I lived in small towns growing up and we had construction projects at various points. Local hardware stores were fine.

                      As for clothing, you are seriously trying to tell me the clothing in Walmart is well made? Even high end clothing has been crapified in the last 20 years.

                    2. Bridget

                      I am seriously saying that it is a very good place to buy cute, inexpensive, and durable children’s clothing. I don’t shop there for my own clothing, although I did pick up a six pack of athletic socks and a thermal top at Walmart a couple of days ago. Along with an ipod charger, a gallon of milk, some diapers, bug spray, a mixing bowl, and washable markers. One stop.

                1. OIFVet

                  I have to see or think of the real avocado, Opti, I accept no substitutes. Love that good stuff. From the picture you linked to, I gather you are not a Mies Van Der Rohe aficionado. Neither am I (a minor Chicago blasphemy!!!), though on some level I agree with the man that “less is more”. Personally I like Craftsman, and as an advanced hobbyist woodworker I spend a lot of my free time recreating Stickley furniture designs for my family and friends.

        2. Jim Haygood

          Forty years ago when WalMart was just a local retain chain in Arkansas, its stores were completely nondescript. I don’t remember no branding at all (though I do recall buying Led Zeppelin II at WalMart cuz it had the cheapest records in town).

          Now WalMart, like most large national chains, has branding guidelines. The color which attracted Lambert’s ire is Walmart dark green (Pantone 364C). It’s described as a highlight color,

          ‘… [used] in combination with our core colors to convey other messages such as “low cost,” “organic,” “natural,” or “innovation.” These colors add depth, for sure, but use them sparingly, please.’

          To some, Walmart dark green might connote 1970s avocado-colored appliances and shag carpet. But that’s cuz they’re old and curmudgeonly. Fresh-faced youths have never seen an avocado appliance, except maybe in a pop culture museum or something. But they might mistake Walmart dark green for a Panera ripoff.

          1. Carolinian

            I have an avocado appliance (please–no cracks. I got it from my mother.)

            And Walmart probably chooses their decor so you will spend as little time looking at it as possible–hence the pastels etc. The awnings, like fake shutters on houses, are there to make it look even more nondescript. The place exists to sell underwear and toilet paper. It’s not an art gallery. When they do try to get artistic (try the “Karnak Walmart” in Mesa, AZ) it can be quite silly.

        3. jrs

          It enforces the idea that consumption is a desirable activity? What? Buying food? No food is necessary to sustain life.

        4. sleepy

          Post of the day!

          Yeah, I shop at Walmart for a few things, averaging say once every 10 days. I do it for the price. period.

          And yes, I can actually hold two thoughts in my mind, prole though I might be,—–Walmart is ugly and a bad shopping experience and, yet, I save a few dollars on certain things shopping there, and sometimes that is actually all I can afford, and I don’t have the resources to make a political statement by not shopping there that others do.

          Despite the tsk tsking from certain more bourgeois quarters, my soul isn’t deadened from the experience. I can shop there, sweat it off, and resume my normal life as a complete and total aesthete, lol, without missing a beat, or certainly not wasting my time overthinking the crappy shopping experience.

          1. OIFVet

            Awesome!!! I have officially graduated to the bourgeois class while Walmart is this populist corporation denouncing the bourgeois decadence of the likes of me. What’s next, the Walton offspring moving into Section 8 housing to express their sympathy for the proletariat whose jobs they moved to China?

            Kind of makes sense though: state communism and crony capitalism are close relatives. Thus the proletariat shopped for cheap, low quality products in dreary state retailers in the communist Soviet Block, and the US proletariat is now shopping for cheap, low quality products in dreary capitalist Walmarts. The difference of course being that in the Soviet Block there were no alternative shopping options, while in the US it comes down to not having “the resources to make a political statement by not shopping there”. The insidious connections between that last part, the growing economic inequality, and the relentless crapification of products, service, and the human experience for the 99% does merit some thinking over, wouldn’t you say? It’s for your granddaughter’s sake after all, and that’s hardly a bourgeois thing to do.

            1. sleepy

              Not really sure what you’re saying particularly in reference to shopping for my granddaughter, but my point was that I can afford to buy her a coat at Walmart and can’t afford that at other stores. And, further, that my experience doesn’t degrade me as far as I can tell.

              That’s all I said. Again, I’m not sure what your response was to my post, but it seemed vaguely negative, just not sure why.

              1. OIFVet

                I was asking whether it might not be useful for you to consider the connections between what you called “crappy shopping experience”, economic inequality, and the crapification of goods, services, and life in general so that one day your granddaughter might have the opportunity to “make a political statement” by not being forced into a “crappy shopping experience.” There’s nothing vaguely or overtly negative about this question, even if it comes from “certain bourgeois quarters”.

                1. sleepy

                  Why on earth would you think I haven’t considered those connections, i.e., between a crappy shopping experience, economic inequality, and the crapification of life in general every bit as well as you have? Yes, we get it. Most get it.

                  It really doesn’t take too much mental energy to recognize the crap of Walmart shopping and at the same time to also recognize that my bank account can only afford a $25 coat as opposed to a $65 coat.

                  Rather than clutch pearls and swoon at the aesthetic dilemma of Walmart’s crap architechture, it’s far easier to take my grandkids to feed the ducks in the park for a genuine experience.

                  Walmart shoppers are perhaps not as stupid nor vulnerable as you think. We put up with far more degradation in life than the shopping experience there.

                  1. Lambert Strether

                    The piece ends: “Working people should have excellent clothes and beautiful places to shop. Why the fuck don’t they?” That’s the point. I don’t understand why some find this so hard to grasp.

                    Adding, when I find it necessary to clutch my pearls, or anybody else’s, you’ll be the first on my list to warn.

                  2. OIFVet

                    Perhaps it is the same thinking process that led you to label me “bourgeois”? I get putting up with degradation, I do speak with an accent after all, having arrived in the US with all of one suitcase and the clothes on my back. I get the part about finding happiness in other, far more important things like family. Which happiness I was denied when the powers that be murdered my father by denying him access to health care. Yes, we were that hard up at one point. So it may appear from the side that mine are the idle musings of a capricious bourgeois, however I see in the Walmart “experience” yet another degradation I don’t want anyone to be forced to put up with.

                    I can afford some of the trappings of the “American dream” now but those invariably reminds me of what my father and so many others like him were denied and are being denied. Lambert’s post deals with one aspect, however minor you find it to be, of what crapification denies to the poor. I find it to be fairly important issue, if only because I find being surrounded by ugliness to be soul-draining. Some people are like that, and they don’t have to be bourgeois to feel that way. I discovered how much I needed beauty when I found myself in the middle of the ugliness that was the Iraq war. Very bourgeois, right? Going out shopping is necessary activity even for the most militant anti-consumers, and I don’t see why a giant, soulless corporation has to make it even more unpleasant than it already is. I need beauty and family in my life to feel emotionally content, and I find it by simply being in my SO’s presence, working in my garden, observing the feathered crowd it attracts, taking long hikes in nature, seeing a beautiful old peasant houses with lilacs growing out front when I go back to visit the old country.

                    1. Lambert Strether

                      Might as well keep your eyes open wherever you are, say I. I mean, if the Harkonnens are running the world, the ugliness is out in the parking lot where people sleep in their cars, and the very same ugliness is through the doors, at the greeters, and right down the aisles, too. And up on the awnings, too, I might add.

                    2. OIFVet

                      That’s right, Lambert. Ugliness is always within range. And outrages like people forced to live out of their cars, or the pensioners in Bulgaria being forced to search through the dumpsters to find food scraps these days. That, at least, didn’t use to be the case when those reviled commies ran the place. Cruelty is ugly and obscene, a Hobbesian nightmare in all of its forms. I refuse to accept any of it as a necessary part of human existence.

                    3. optimader

                      Bourgeoisie is synonymous for a healthy middleclass. The heavy lifting for the cultural /social advancements of Europe were largely due to the existence of Bourgeoisie.

                    4. OIFVet

                      That is true Opti, however I reject the notion that wanting beauty in one’s life is somehow a purely bourgeois affectation. It isn’t, as I tried to point out when I talked about the peasants in Bulgaria. They sought beauty too, and they were not bourgeois or kulaks or whatever label one wants to use. Also, bourgeois requires a particular state of mind in addition to the purely economic indicators. I lack that state of mind (I think), and I don’t care to acquire it either. I think that I have made clear why that’s the case.

                    5. optimader

                      Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy good design and aesthetics, it isn’t necessarily any more expense, in fact in most cases probably less expensive in the long run.

                      My only thought on bourgeois is I always have found it an odd invective in the classical sense of the word. Frankly, I think China not having a bourgeois class was to their detriment.

            2. guest

              The difference of course being that in the Soviet Block there were no alternative shopping options, while in the US it comes down to not having “the resources to make a political statement by not shopping there”.

              On the contrary, the similarities continue. Actually, there were alternatives in the Soviet Block (and other communist states): the special, well-stocked shops filled with unobtainable products reserved for foreign tourists or for those people (the nomenklatura) who could pay in foreign currencies, or in that special variant of the national currency that normal citizens could only procure through illegal means.

              So yes, there were alternatives, but most people did not have the resources to shop there…

          2. Lambert Strether

            I don’t know who the “some others” are, here. If there was a Walmart within a reasonable distance of where I live, I might go there for paint, for example. Since it’s four hours away, that’s not an option. I don’t recall advocating that anybody boycott Walmart — though if there were an OURWalmart action, I would. I just said it’s ugly and an insult to working people, who deserve better.

        5. ann

          Nice rebuttal, Carolinian! I once shopped exclusively the local high end supermarket chains, but found that I could save about one third of my food budget money at Walmart. With that savings, that additional money enables me to buy a ticket to see the latest masterworks exhibit at the high end art museum in the city where I live, or some other pleasure, without having to forego another item I might wish. Once employed in a Fortune 500 company, forced out of business by the money interests in money versus labor, as an older employee, lost one third of my retirement income, which changed things considerably for me in a job market that had little or no use for an older employee. Where before the things that I value I could afford and I spent far more on basics than was necessary. After all, a brand name is a brand name, whether purchased at Walmart or at a high end food chain!

      2. Moneta

        I don’t like wal mart but I do shop there. I buy staples (pharmaceuticals, laundry stuff, batteries, etc.)… Frankly most of the competition is just as drab with higher prices and the same minimum wages. Why would I fill up the owners pockets so they can take my money and buy a Beemer or spend the money on trips out of the country.

        I pocket the difference and spend it on places where beauty counts or on local products and services.
        Lack of beauty is not just a wmt thing. They are just the best at combining the feelings of new and soulless and I di not feel compelled to reward the players that are marginally better.

        1. OIFVet

          Frankly most of the competition is just as drab with higher prices and the same minimum wages.

          “Most” implies that not all of the competition is a Walmart clone. In that case, wouldn’t it make sense to go purchase those staples there and give your business to those who are not soulless blood-suckers? I am asking because the Waltons will indeed not go and buy a Beemer or go on a foreign holiday with your money. They will go and buy politicians to pass laws and regulations that favor Walmart’s business model at our expense, peddle public influence through their foundation on behalf of rent-extracting charter schools that destroy both education and teachers’ incomes, etc. Sorry but taking the pennies you saved and spending it locally is a cheap (literally) cop out. I will grant you that Costco stores, for example, are not known for aesthetics; that said, they do sell you the same things at the same prices, while offering decent salaries and benefits to their employees. Last I checked, their employees don’t have to make ends meet by getting you and me to shoulder the cost burden of the food stamp and medicaid welfare they are forced to seek by the soulless Waltons.

          1. Moneta

            I’m in Canada BTW. The shopping experience is not American. Actually for those things that I do buy at Wal-Mart my choices are other big boxes like Target, Cdn Tire, Loblaws, Metro, Dollarama, Future Shop, Shoppers Drugmart. The shopping experience is just as soulless in those places. I guess I could pay more and stick to Cdn firms and buy the Cdn stocks… employees are not paid anymore there. Metro is the smallest of them all but it shrink wraps all its fruits and vegetables.

            Costco might treat their employees a little better but the quantities are huge and they don’t always have what your need. It’s out of our way and the parking is usually a nightmare. For the senses, Costco is as ugly as Wal-Mart.

    3. James

      Kunstler’s been ranting about architectural crapification for years, although much of his stuff also attacks faux grandiosity. I definitely appreciate the points he makes and being made here, but I always just considered this the natural outgrowth of Murica’s overall crapification of everything.

      But this quote of his makes sense to me: A land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending.

      Seems to me we are already there.

      1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

        I especially liked Kunstler’s description of a kid fighting in Afghanistan, only to return to his unspeakably ugly hometown mall complete with ChuckECheese and WalMart and ask himself “this is what I’m fighting for?” It does matter.

    4. Patricia

      Carolinian, it is snobbish to insist that poor people don’t value attractiveness, especially after you’ve just read about Indian weavers, tailors, and jewelers (poor artisans) spending more to get a pair of decent-looking glasses.

      Attractiveness is “vanity” for the poor but for those with enough money, it is understood to be a basic element of “good quality”.

      The poor learn to ignore their environment when it is butt-ugly, such as those rust-colored sheets of plywood angled to look as if they might fall down. It is classist to assume that silent avoidance is acceptance.

      It is also elitist to believe that ignorance of aesthetics is not still felt as an absence.

      1. jrs

        How much aesthetics is valued is probably more an individual variation than a class variation. But I suppose if you are elite enough you are trained to value aesthetics more regardless of individual inclinations. But even those who don’t value aesthetics much, an ugly environment probably has a subconscious effect.

        1. Patricia

          Yep, it is felt as an absence even when it isn’t understood as such. It occurs underneath variations in education, creative development and taste for different styles/approaches.

    5. sd

      Actually, it’s poor branding which is basic marketing 101 type stuff. Walmart is signaling that they do not care about their brand which translates quite literally in fact to they do not care about their clients.

    6. Egbert

      reeks of class snobbery

      — commentary on soul-crushing ugliness is class snobbery? That one reeks of, um, wait for it …. snobbery.

  9. mike

    Hmm, how lucky the comments are lately to have these folks and their variations of “you used to be a good site but now you suck.” And coincidental, we’re sure.

    1. Clive

      Yep, not the first time I’ve noticed this myself. Lambert’s article obviously stands on its own merits. If anyone wants to take issue with it, they can mount a good counter argument “Walmart is not an example of neofeudalism because of X, Y, and Z reasons…” If instead you get “You shouldn’t be brining up subjects such as this because these things don’t exist and if you think they do then there’s somthing wrong with your judgement…” that’s quite a subtle form of undermining boh the author of an article and those who might be interested in reading it. Interesting too that the comments oftentimes come not in response to Yves’s original pieces but guest authors’ and Lambert’s articles.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        That’s because that type of troll is afraid of me (as in I often turn them into lunchmeat for sport) and hope to drive a wedge between me and the other writers on this site. In fact, I am more likely to go after someone who attacks other writer than me.

        Having said that, people who are too intellectually lazy to offer a bona fide objection are often obvious trolls (never commented before and therefor unlikely to respond) and/or not worth dignifying by responding.

        We aren’t here to win popularity contests. We are here to promote critical thinking.

        1. TheraP

          Yves: “We are here to promote critical thinking.”

          And thank god for that! You do a great job of it. Great posts. Great comment community. Great evisceration of nonsense. This place is a balm to the weary, stimulation to the mind, with uplifting photos and wonderful humor along the way.

          Anyone who’s been on the web for a while and has their thinking cap on can spot the trolls and concern trolls. Plus the Gems of wisdom you so deservedly attract. (It’s always been my observation that a flurry of troll comments is an infallible sign of an especially powerful post, thus a backhanded compliment. Else why would they bother?)

  10. Steve H.

    ‘The Nature of Order’ is wonderful, a book about art that is art, about life that lives. A beautiful tool.

    The trick of juxtaposing two images works well as a decision tool, and is evocative rather than reductionist. Zenpundit uses DoubleQuotes, for example:
    “The top panel image is of the North Pole of Saturn, as recently captured by NASA’s Cassini mission”


  11. ambrit

    I just caught on. “The Awnings of WalMart.” It’s supposed to be a musical in French, right?
    ambrit (la perfide)

    1. Working Class Nero

      I believe it is a play on the title of a popular blog; People of Walmart, where the aesthetic choices of Walmart customers are critiqued.

      Aesthetic choices or taste are a matter of acquired social capital. I think it would be interesting to contrast Walmart’s corporate-created aesthetics with those of authentic working class shops, designed and created by actual working class people.

    2. craazyman

      it sounds to me like it’s an English novel.

      The Awnings of WalMart

      As the bus bumped fitfully over the potholed road, Horace Awning counted his pocket change, calculating sharply in his mind whether that jar of peanut butter would be an expense deferred or the object of a sumptuous feast. Shortly his destination appeared through the scratched and yellowed window and he could not, though he had seen the flabbergasting construction a thousand times, restrain an involunttary gasp. It was hideous. It is hideous, he thought to himself. And suddenly his felicitous mood darkened and the peanut butter feast, an object of such anticipation early in the day, swelled into an emetic mental cesspool at which he violently wretched audibly. Thomas Hardy’s characters never suffered like this, he thought, why do I? Because, he answered himself, I’m making myself up and Thomas Hardy is dead.

      1. Clive

        Nice try craazyman. But it wouldn’t have been peanut butter, it would have been marmalade. Or potted beef spead if the “savoury” aspect was especially important. And your excellent prose is far too well paced to be either Hardy or a Hardy pastiche. Hardy would have needed at least a whole chapter — two chapters probably — to move the plotting on that far. The potholes alone would have taken up a good couple of pages.

        1. ambrit

          Jar of marmalade and a reference to Proust. (Hardy was a psychic, or so my palmist avers.)
          Potholes? Hardy would have marveled at the hard flat bits between the potholes.
          The WalMart on the Floss.

  12. mad as hell.


    You must be that same hurried individual that cuts in front of the line at a bank or store or theater and when someone says, “You’re skipping the line”!
    You tell them, how rude they are for opening their mouth and bringing it to their attention.

  13. Demeter

    I go to Walmart for one thing only: replacement humidifier filters. I don’t know why I can’t find them anywhere else….a client tipped me off.

    I bought a couple of dwarf fruit trees at Walmart last year; they were advertised. They were very healthy and grew well. I am hoping they produce this year. Of course, that’s probably a concession department, not part of the corporate.

    1. TarheelDem

      There’s the traditional discount store aesthetics I mention below. As for tarting, Target is the champ.

      1. JTFaraday

        The Target décor seems consistent with its overall branding. Leaving aside quality of workmanship, this looks more like the earth tones that Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth (and more recently The End of America), reputedly advised Al Gore to wear in the 2000 election.

        1. TarheelDem

          Back in the 1970s the K-Mart look was characterized as “flourescent oven”. In the 1990s, some stores failed to install every other tube to give the store a more low-key look.

  14. TarheelDem

    Discount stores are ugly. What is new? Have been since Boston’s J.M. Fields and Michigan’s K-Mart and other chains started the genre around 1958. I see that Lambert’s area Walmarts have the mustard yellow theme instead of the godawful blue theme we have in North Carolina.

    Around here, Walmart is where working class folks shop, not poor people. And Walmart’s ugliness is a middle class kind of ugliness. You should see Art Pope’s Rose’s or Sen. David Perdue’s Dollar General stores. And then there is everybody’s favorite–Big Lots.

    Where poor people shop for clothing as much as possible are thrift stores. Careful shopping there (especially if they are PTA or Junior League shops) can net some high quality clothing and occasionally small appliances that won’t break down in a year. There’s no pretense. Typically they are painted white or light blue.

    But gee whiz, architectural criticism of Walmart. Either you need to get out more into the world rest of us are forced to live in or you need to do this as a regular feature. Have you seen what Kroger does architecturally with their delis? Or a comparison of Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and Trader Joe’s, Or Aldi, Greenville SC’s Kash and Karry, and Costco.

    But what I find architecturally most insulting as a consumer are banks and health care facilities. They shove in your face that they are taking your money and using it for fancy buildings (and not even aesthetically fancy buildings) and fancier salaries.

    And public architecture is completely dead. I think the last public building to try to make a strong architectural statement was the main Chicago Public Library. Most public buildings look little different from Walmarts or office park boxes–except for the ones from the Riot Renaissance era of the turn of the 1970s or the Security Chic era after 9/11. Have you noticed how many shopping plazas have fortress blockhouses on the roofs now? A little architectural tower here and there, open and sheltered.

    And even the exclusive shopping malls have been so “upscaled” that they look tarted up.

    As more and more of the really good WPA era art and architecture gets ransacked.

    Yes, an epidemic of ugliness and the metastasizing of litter in response.

    1. ambrit

      I can personally lead you to a WPA Arts Project mural now gracing the wall of a St. Tammany School Board functionaries office. (The office was once part of a Post Office building. The mural forgotten. Maybe painted over by now. Who knows?)

        1. ambrit

          I don’t know if my snark detector is malfunctioning or not. I like those WPA murals. Americas version of Social Realism. Like all those unjustly maligned Maoist posters showing brave young communist youth leading the way to the City on the Hill, those WPA murals worked to show the American public the strengths and potentials of their land in the midst of a massive crisis. Like the Soviet era art works, the WPA projects were earnest propaganda for something better than what we had. So, I’ll assume, (always a bad decision to assume anything, I know,) that you are being tongue in cheek. Besides, what else is Fox News but a Koch Industries propaganda poster, without any artistic merit.
          (Hope you’re feeling better. Any idea what you have or had?)

    2. Patricia

      The dusty unattractiveness of thrift stores fits them, since shoppers come to hunt down the treasures in the junk. If they were aesthetically pleasing, one would feel suspicious that the owners had dropped the game for something else.

      The ugliness of places like Big Lots and Dollar stores are supposedly based on the same premise—we save you even more money. Leftovers. The environment of places like Walmart is a pretense of a pretense, a reflection of much of their product—it is a consistent insult. “You are poor; you deserve only the pretense of quality.”

      I completely agree re doctors’ offices and hospitals. And if they must shove it in our faces, why can’t they at least do it well?

      Tarting up, wherever it occurs, is aesthetic ignorance. Buildings/décor needn’t be so damn ugly just because not a lot of money is spent on it. At least Target has tried.

    3. Lambert Strether

      Filene’s Basement in Boston was discount, and that was a great store (I think private equity ruined it). At least it was vivid and full of life and you didn’t feel some larval MBA-type had sucked all the vitality out of the fixtures.

  15. blucollarAl

    Architecture and design: the human desire to create “things”, buildings, objects of decoration and use, the stuff that surrounds our lives and frames the spaces — public and private — in which we live, make decisions, undertake actions and activities, think and feel, hate and love (all of us, rich and poor alike).

    These things, conceived, designed, modeled and built, “speak” to us. They must perform their proper functions, that great concern for engineers and users as well, but the WAY they perform, or, better, the “style” or “manner” through which they exercise functionality, is an implicit articulation of an understanding about in what consists a “good life”, lived individually and in common, life lived with respect for human dignity, a life designed to be, as far as it is possible in this dimension of time and space, “happy” (Greek: “lived well”).

    It is the style, the appearances of things, the kind of beauty or ugliness that surrounds us, especially the most important things of our lives: housing, public buildings and spaces, churches and places of worship and contemplation, etc., that encourages , advocates, affirms, certain essential ideas about who we are, what kind of lives are worth living, and what kinds of world we want to live in and, perhaps more importantly, want our children and children’s children to live in. As Andre Malraux had it: the beautiful (or ugly) emerges within
    the tradition to which it belongs and recognizes that each tradition speaks or discloses a deep set of assumptions about what it means to live a human life. That is, what we find to be “beautiful” or at least aesthetically acceptable, is that which expresses our deepest beliefs, desires, and assumptions about the nature and dignity of human life.

    If, then, art and architecture reminds us (unconsciously for the most part) of who we conceive ourselves to be, our goals, ideals, dignity — or the lack thereof), if the buildings in which we dwell proclaim a certain vision of what it means to live and to live well or poorly, our values and core beliefs, then what and how we make things can be either affirming, supportive, and comforting to the human spirit or de-socializing, hostile, dissonant to human life well lived, the expression of despair, domination, and disrespect for all or for some significant parts of human society. At its best, great art and architecture is in a way eschatological: it attempts to embody in form, in style and grace, in materials shaped and applied, a vision of human existence that we as a historical people in this time and place would like it to be: human existence rescued from depravity and deformity, life as it should be but as yet is not.

    Art and architecture, in this view, can lie as well as tell the truth: it can present to us a vision that is ultimately destructive, debilitating, deflating, demoralizing, in a word, ugly, an ugliness that tells us: your lives too are ugly and ugliness is the only think you have a right to aspire to.

    In the words of the great architectural historian and critic Alain de Boton, in a time and tradition of ugliness,
    “we may find ourselves arguing that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter much what buildings look like…professions of detachment and indifference that stem not so much from an insensitivity to beauty as from a desire to deflect the sadness we would face if we left ourselves open to face all of beauty’s many absences in our world and our lives.”

  16. Eureka Springs

    I’ll say this about the suits in the old German photo. One would be hard pressed to find the quality of fabric and stitching in a thousand (or more) dollar suit today. Those suits were woven and stitched to last decades and they did. Most of the people in that era were short and fat (quite common to find W-42 X L-29 slacks from that era), making it even more difficult to look good especially in the eyes of a critic from afar. There is only so much you can do to make a fish out of water look good. I rather suspect at least two of the young gentleman in the photo are wearing borrowed suits from a larger elder . Country folk don’t live in an environment conducive to suit attire. I know simply because of the effort involved in wearing a nice pair of shoes. I must carry them to the car, remove my boots and put on the good shoes only after I cross a river and a few ridge-tops before I get to town. Prada nor Gucci can handle a misstep on moss or mud. It’s nearly impossible to find quality fabric at any cost these days. It’s also difficult to find a decent seamstress or tailor to perform quality basic alterations, much less one who could make a complete fine garment from scratch. For now those days are gone. Quality, like human rights are tortured terms used against us these days. So few rarely consider their real meaning, how to evaluate them.

    I bought a 13 year old Jeep less than two miles from Wal_Mart world HQ in Bentonville yesterday. What the wealth of wal-mart sprawl has done to those old homes, barns and cow pastures is appalling. Three of us with thirty to fifty years each living in the area could not find esthetically pleasing observations about it at all…. except for the new billion dollar barn aka Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

    Everything from the clothing to the big box and office buildings, to the pop up mansions are not built to last as long as the old barns they bulldozed. Ironically that’s a good thing. As long as that awning doesn’t fall on someones head!

  17. Jim A

    Aesthetics are not a moral issue. I actually kind of like the minimalist “modern” evocation of an awning…If somebody had done this in the 30s they would have been lauded as part of the avaunt garde…In the 50s-60s this would have been considered simply “modern”, like the “marina” safeways or the HoJo roofs that these vaguely resemble. I suppose that the underlying economy of production which was always a selling point for “Modern Design” seems just seems cheap now, and the presentation as dated as the typeface. Don’t get me wrong Walmart IS a great exemplar of the ongoing crapifacation of this country, but I wouldn’t use the mere dated taste of this as a prime example of that.

    1. Patricia

      There is an ethical question about things done shabbily because of greed, neglect or laziness.

      That the awnings are minimal doesn’t mean they are not stingy and shoddy.

    2. Lambert Strether

      “Aesthetics are not a moral issue.” I’m not sure that’s so cut and dried. Back in the day when I was a hot shot consultant, I visited Prague and saw some apartment blocks build in the Soviet era; they were inexplicably depressing, even from the outside. When I looked more closely — and people with real Eastern European experience will correct me, here — I saw that the ceilings were slightly too law, with the effect that people would have to walk with a little stoop, as if literally oppressed. I cannot help thinking that posture would have a degrading effect, as it was meant to, and here we see an aesthetic issue blend to a moral one.

      I’m not claiming all moral issues are aesthetic and/or vice versa, I’m just saying there’s a relation, not a black and white divide.

  18. Pepsi

    Once they kill the local garment industry, everything is fucked. If you can only get marked up rags made by slaves, you’re going to look like shit.
    Normcore is slum chic. Donated t shirt style. Decade old khakis. Fuck the world. Fuck Wal Mart. Every single one should be bulldozed. Every container ship from China should be sunk. Let’s start over and tell the bosses to fuck off.

  19. Dapper Dan

    Their suits deform them? Must confess, I can’t see it. When have suits not been ridiculous? Are these worse than normal suits, in some ineffable way that betrays my awful taste?

  20. DJG

    Two notes:
    [1] I agree with Eureka Springs. I don’t understand Berger’s high reputation on matters visual, particularly that gaze business. I find his ideas to be absurd. He’s part of a whole school of bad visual analysis that thinks of itself as terribly radical. Male gaze, indeed. Has any one of them ever looked at a drawing by Rosalba Carriera or an icon of Mary, Mother of Jesus? Has Berger ever looked at photos from the U.S. during the late 1800s? You can find dozens of farmers who put on their best clothes, which were well made, and sat for a daguerreotype. And their suits don’t deform them. This is bad esthetic analysis and bad class analysis.
    [2] The problem is very deepseated. The Northern European “avert your eyes” visual field is all about iconoclasm. Many of the early settlers to what became the USA were only a few generations from people who destroyed churches and vandalized statues. So you end up with the esthetic misery of Baptist churches, LDS churches, the struggles of pre-Revolutionary painters in the Colonies, the garishness of much of 19th-century advertising, the horrors of American suburbs. [I passed a few years in Evanston, Illinois, which seems to have spent 50-70 years trying to become ugly, and succeeding, and is also (still) the HQ of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union–there’s a link between that sort of religious mentality and general plainness.) Voilà! > Walmart.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Not sure why US farmers in the late 1800s sitting for a dagerrotype and German peasants in the early 20th C selected to be photographed are from the same class. Can you explain why they are?

  21. DJG

    Ah, yes, Crystal Bridges. The absurd metaphor. The collection as plaything. The museum as trophy. It’s on the same continuum as the awning for Bread, and like the awning for Bread, there is little respect for bread or art.

  22. KenG

    The fact that Wal-mart exists is amazing, giving how a) they depend on low-income customers for much of their revenue, and b) their major shareholders and management favor economic policies that are designed to further minimize the income of their customer base. The politics they favor shifts distribution of income from labor to management and capital classes, which can only shrink the spending power of Wal-Mart’s customers, as they move from low income to abject poverty.

    Wal-mart supposedly favors higher minimum wage laws, so that their workers and customers can afford to spend more there. They also supported early versions of what became Obamacare, so that the government, and not them, would pay for health care for their workers. They do seem to like the idea of a larger customer base with more disposable income, and having to spend less on employee benefits, but they only support politicians who oppose these goals. It’s as if they are counting on magic to give them more cake while they are eating it.

  23. Vatch

    There are a couple of explanations for Walmart’s apparently paradoxical continued existence as a huge corporation:

    1. In many of their locations, they are a monopoly. Predatory pricing drove many local competitors out of business years, even decades ago. Many people have no place else to shop or to work.
    2. Government subsidies. The government provides SNAP assistance (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or food stamps) to hundreds of thousands of Walmart employees. Many of those employees are also eligible for Medicaid assistance (I’m reluctant to call Obamacare “assistance”). These subsidies don’t just benefit employees, they also help Walmart customers to buy Walmart products, especial groceries.

  24. carson

    Love the fact that walmart ads show up next to this article. So of course I click on them and hopefully make Yves a bit of money and cost walmart some. Seems win win to me.

  25. cwaltz

    I actually worked at the retailer for 3 years. At some point you become oblivious to your surroundings for the most part. I often felt like I was herding cattle. Get em in, get em’ out. You get into this mode where your brain semi checks out and you go into auto mode. Sometimes it would become obvious when a customer actually paid attention to you as a human being and you ended up going off script. More often the litany of “did you find everything today” and “thank you have a nice nights” were almost automated.

    As far as shopping there as a customer it’s disheartening. It’s fairly obvious that Walmart does not consider the customer’s time valuable because everything they do says that to you. From the maddening way things are haphazardly stocked(by late night overnight workers with quotas on how much stock must be placed)and often unmarked with actual prices to the lines that flow back at the first moment they realize they don’t have to compete with other stores(heaven forbid you’re there at 10). Hell they even have their department heads running multiple departments which explains why they are often out of things. All in the name of “savings”, not customer service.

    That being said, I don’t mind the color scheme or the awnings. I abhored it more when Walmart was pretending it had a shot at being upscale AND dollar store competition. I’ve long thought they should just figure out who they are and go for it instead of trying to be everything to everyone. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t improve customer service instead of chasing pennies by making each associate perform multiple services(and having them stretched so thin they do it all poorly.)

  26. Paul Niemi

    I looked around, and it seems most of Walmart’s competitors are closing stores, lots of them. Walmart is not. A question that occurred to me is: how much foreign direct investment did the Walton family spend to gain access to the suppliers of all the cheap stuff they sell in China? I would guess it is a substantial sum. Well, good luck getting any of that money back, because the mother of all economic bubbles is collapsing over there. Lambert saw a system run more cheaply than possible at Walmart, and he is right. It isn’t possible, it is unreal, and it will change when the hidden subsidies, both foreign and domestic, end. I’m only sorry the barns full of cheap, imported junk are not paying into funds to restore the properties to green space, after they close the doors. Vacant commercial properties, with vast, empty parking lots growing weeds are not esthetically pleasing. However, with any luck the U.S. will once again be safe for small business, when those big follies are far fewer.

  27. Mark J. Lovas

    I’m inclined to agree with the thought that people suffer with ugliness, and that it is completely unnecessary. But I wonder whether part of the problem–why people might accept it more in the USA than elsewhere–might
    be the influence of Puritanism. (Roughly: If you’re enjoying yourself you’re not working and so if you enjoy shopping/entering the marketplace too much then maybe you are not an efficient or smart shopper.)
    ((Respondents above who said they enjoy shopping in specific places are a counter-example, but there still could be a willingness to put up with unpleasantess of many forms due to Puritanism–that is, a greater willingness by Americans than others without a Puritan heritage.))
    And I don’t think it’s just a matter of class-ism. Joseph (or Josef?) Pilates once said that every human being has a right to physical perfection. I think that’s right, but I interpret it as follows: Not that we all should be olympic athletes, but rather in a civilized society each of us should be able to access the cultural artifacts (whether they be gyms, dance studios, or swimming pools or whatever) and have the education to use our bodies in a fulfilling, healthy way.–As opposed to mostly ignoring them… And I would say the same about access to everyday beauty. Separating off beauty (or creativity, or the enjoyment of our physical embodiment) to special groups of people or specially designated moments in life seems to be to be a clear case of the fetishism of commodities–i.e., its latest installment or Version 10,203…..

  28. PQS

    Fake awnings! At least they are merely interior decor….I’ve actually installed fake awnings on the exterior of a building for a Large Multinational Horrible TBTJ Bank which of course would never in a million years encourage “street people” to congregate under a Real Awning in front of their “branch”…..

    The Big Box Retail model is just the natural offshoot of the Mall Culture in America. Look at a mall from the outside – it’s just an enormous box with teeny little entrances, surrounded by moats of asphalt. So it is with the BBR stores….at least Costco has the warehouse as their business model. WalMart has the “hometown store” as their purported model, when in reality they have done nothing but destroy hometowns across America.

    I do think people are getting sick of it and sick of huge, huge stores, especially as the population ages. I tried to take my 85 YO Grandma to Target, and she had to rest several times during the trip. The stores are just too much for an older person to get around in – too big, too intimidating, too much. My own mother refuses to shop at the local grocery chain, preferring Trader Joe’s because it’s smaller, friendlier, and has everything she wants.

    The reason there is no appreciation of aesthetics in America is because the business of America is business. Business people, and their so-called “schools” scoff at, deride, and ridicule anything associated with aesthetics, unless there’s a buck to be made. Good God, look at the entire music industry, just as an example!

    Target figured out there’s money in nice-looking things for their demographic. Ironically, I bet WalMart’s attempts at interior decor are part and parcel of them trying to monetize aethestics and make their stores appealing to a different demographic. It’s just that they put a Business School graduate in charge of the Art Department.

    1. OIFVet

      Efff Target too. The Target stores I have been to appear to jam 4G signals. The idea appears to be to force you to log into the store’s guest WiFi network so that they can track your movements and offer you junk as you pass by a particular section. I have cut my shopping at Target to a minimum as result, I am simply not on board with this Big Brother BS. Plus, what they pay their employees is not much different from Walmart’s.

      1. optimader

        Wow!.. I’ve only been to Target to buy ball jars.
        For me, Walmart=Lindt chocolate stockup, that’s about it.
        In neither case are the store aesthetics any influence on me.

        Other than Costco, which I’ll visit at ~6:00-7:00 on a Monday or Tuesday (best time to zip in and out ) I pretty much only go to smaller stores. Veeery infrequently Home Depot, I prefer the local hardware stores.
        Costco for beer/wine, Tjoes for wine(and frozen fish), Binnys for all manner of liquor.

  29. TG

    Walmart as the Harkonnen shopping mall! That makes total sense!

    I always despised Walmart, both for their race-to-the-bottom politics, and because their stores are creepy and gross. I shop at Costco (to consume mass quantities) and Target and Publix. These at least don’t make me feel like I am in the fourth circle of hell. But now you have given me a new angle on the issue!

    I imagine the guy who played the evil baron in the David Lynch film version of Dune chortling to himself in the Walmart HQ.

    “The day hums sweetly when you have enough bees working for you.”
    – The Baron Vladimir Harkonnen

  30. Rosario

    All the big retail stores follow a rentier model. Target, Whole Foods, Costco are less/not ugly, but they feign respect for their customers by a mere modicum. Their goal is to establish a consistent customer base or brand following (Walmart->working poor, Target->mythical American “middle class”, Whole Foods->the elite and the “striving and yearning” middle class). They all lack a link to their customers and their owners are inaccessible and disinterested in our aesthetic preferences not so much by way of animosity but by economic design. Though if the customers owned the stores the story might be different.

  31. Bart Fargo

    First complaining about the order of Google top search results, and now critiquing the awnings in a Wal-Mart? These companies do many evil things, but these issues are pretty far down the list. Reminds me of a post here a couple months ago about Google using randomly generated pseudo-Rorschach blots as the daily doodle and how it was a mass psychological surveillance experiment — not everything is a conspiracy. Incidentally, if you want to experience authentic working class shopping you ought to go to places like the immigrant street markets in South Philly. Talk about “depressing and horrible” colors, “cheap” materials, and shoddy construction. They are anything but beautiful – quite dark, filthy, smelly and noisy as a matter of fact – and make Wal-Mart look good simply by virtue of being a “clean, well-lighted place”. You have to look beneath the surface of the streets to appreciate the history, culture, and yes, exploitative relationships behind doing business that way. And don’t forget to bring cash.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love NC and check it almost every day, but posts like these are unintentional parodies of themselves.

    1. TG

      Technically you are correct – compared to Wal-mart’s pushing for race-to-the-bottom trade policies, pushing for trade policies that will allow corporate lawyers to trump democratic laws, demanding that taxpayers subsidize their cheap labor, etc., the fact that Wal-mart stores are ugly is not that big a deal. And yet, and yet… the fact that the management at Walmart simply does not give a damn about whether their stores are unpleasant eyesores, surely this could be seen as a symptom of something deeper? What does this say about how the executives at walmart think about the public at large? Could not this attitude spill over into more substantive issues? It hunk this is legitimate.

      Another way to think about this is: a problem we have no is the fracturing off of the elite from the rest of the country. Walmart executives don’t shop at walmart – in fact, I expect that they spend little time just walking around seeing how things are going. It doesn’t matter to them. The people who shop at walmart are just cattle of no consequence beyond the bottom line. It’s like airports: in the old days there was first class and economy, they were separate but still on the same planes and terminals. Now there are private jets at (taxpayer-subsidized) private terminals, and the true rich never set foot in a normal airport terminal and never deal with the TSA. So why should they care if the regular person is hassled? In the old days the rich would have their mansions, but still be part of the city, and walk in parks with regular people, and take pride in the shared beauty of the city – now the rich are increasingly in private country clubs and private resorts and private islands etc. and the public parts of the city can go rot. When the rich do throw a party in a major city they lock it down, wall it off from the peasantry, fly in fresh furnishings, and when they are done, ship it all off again.

      Yes I know – the people who ran old-school department stores didn’t always shop there either. But they were not afraid to be seen in their stores, and as I recall, took pride in what they had created.

      It matters, I think, if the people who run the country feel any pride in what they are creating. Are they building something that they can be proud of? Or trying to suck as much profit out of the masses before it all falls apart and seeing the physical stores as only ledger entries in a spreadsheet?

      1. Bart Fargo

        I agree it can be seen as a symptom of a greater problem, but my point was that compared to authentic urban street markets, places like Wal-Mart and Target actually offer a more upscale shopping experience. I disagree that the corporate management of Wal-Mart hasn’t given any thought to the design of their stores (at least the interior design, which is what counts while people are shopping there). The wide-open air-conditioned spaces of big box stores aim to create an atmosphere of consumer abundance and convenience. Their choice of bright lighting, long orderly aisles, and an artificial anti-septic ambiance is in sharp contrast to the feeling of dilapidated working-class neighborhoods or the tiny, dim and dusty corner stores in the ‘hood. True, the corner stores have much more character, but it is a far grittier character than that exemplified by the photo of the French patisserie, since in my experience such upscale designs are to be found only in gentrified areas of US cities. So while big box stores’ design might be low-cost and artificial, they also have the kind of order, cleanliness and brightness that is missing from most other working class areas (kinda like the bar in Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”).

        So while I agree with you that major retailers ought to give back much more to the communities they’re trying to mold into their own neoliberal image, I think that money would be much better spent on the outside community, or on improving their own labor and supply practices, rather than on remodeling their stores to resemble cobblestoned Alsatian shopping districts. Because no matter how much they remodel it, it will still be a Wal-Mart and the .01% still won’t shop there, just like they don’t visit working-class corner groceries except perhaps to find a particularly “ethnic” ingredient.

        1. TG

          Yes, but you are missing the point.

          Walmart could be much more pleasant with negligible more money spent – BUT THE MANAGEMENT DOES NOT CARE. I am not some snob who thinks that any store that is not an accurate replica of Venice is somehow lower class – I get clean and efficient and Spartan and well-lighted – but Walmart is not about providing low-cost goods in an efficient manner. Walmart is about providing low-cost goods and saying FUCK YOU WE DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU YOU ARE VERMIN YOU ARE CATTLE YOU WILL TAKE WHAT WE GIVE YOU AND WE DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK. Pardon the caps, you get the idea.

          And here is the main point: why would the walmart executives ‘give back to the community’ when they feel no connection to the community at all? Walmart is not their community! They do not care! THAT is what is being discussed here!

          It has been hard for me to realize the main issue: it’s not that Walmart stores are ugly. If that were the worst thing in the world we would truly live in paradise. No, it’s that the Walmart executives (and the American oligarchy in general) DO NOT CARE ABOUT THE PUBLIC. That, surely, is a recipe for societal rot.

          1. Bart Fargo

            OK, well never let it be said that you’re one to let the subject of a post (the interior design of big box stores) hold you back from a caps lock-filled rant against Wal-Mart.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Did you miss that this is the week between Christmas and New Years? In years past, we’ve posted zero original content during this period. We are using this time to catch up on odds and ends. If we wrote an original post on a finance horrorshow now, it would not get any traction. We are holding our fire for when readers and influencers are back in the saddle.

  32. peteybee

    Not sure how I feel about this one.

    Awnings at Walmart done in poor taste. News at 11!

    Awnings at Walmart represents the oppressive nature of the system. Human dignity under attack!

    I’m going with the theory that problem isn’t the lack of style as exemplified by the awnings, the problem is the low wages combined with the oh-so-efficient economic force giving you no choice but to accept the way of homogenized mediocrity.

    Where I live, wal-mart has been a fact of life for over a decade. For some stuff, it genuinely has the best value in town. Other stuff (for instance, tools) is true crap. I don’t think i’ve ever cared about their lack of style.

    So Target is a little prettier. “Democratized Design”, I’ve heard it called. I like it better, but it seems to me like the same economic equation.

    Or if you’re in NYC, ever been to a Fairway? They have great stuff. Expensive, but long lines of hard working but well paid new yorkers go for it. I like it too when I’m there. No shortage of style. You would think there’s plenty of dignity to go around. But take a look at the employees if you’re ever there – Isn’t there a little something wrong with that picture?

  33. Jay M

    But some young aware individual could have intuited the Pythagorean theorem from that awning. We are fawningly calling it an awning, because Walmart. More like a curiously solipsistic functional adornment. The Victorians became infatuated with the curlicues that machine treatment of wood could supply. The Arkansas inhabitants at least five cousins removed from immigration create their island of greed and call it reality.

  34. Blackjack

    Take heart… the ones in Canada are even worse. A lot worse. Without a word of a lie, the one here in Victoria, in a brand-new development called ‘Uptown’ (jazzy, eh?) which is actually pretty upscale, for a mall development, (almost attractive…), is, I kid you not, in a space that is, to all intents and purposes, a parking garage. Ugly? Yuck. Actually, I like shopping at Walmart in the US. Damn sight more interesting an adventure than our pathetic facsimiles. ( Maybe it’s all the guns…)

  35. Chelsea

    This is just silly. I’ve been poor I wasn’t concerned with how attractive stores were, but rather can I buy enough to eat? And when I left a store with enough to eat, I did not feel at all like my soul was diminished. I was happy to have a bag of groceries. Really happy.

    Later in life when I made more than I needed I shopped in stores with lovely decor and snobbish sales clerks. Frankly, I felt a little silly. I was overpaying for the products for the sake of the decor.

    Articles like this seem to be written by people who have never been poor and imagine their values should translate unchanged to people who are struggling. Concern with aesthetics is a luxury. Nice if you can afford it, but of no concern whatsoever if you’re just getting by.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Again, the article ends:

      Working people should have excellent clothes and beautiful places to shop. Why the fuck don’t they?

      That’s the point. Why is that so hard to grasp? I can’t speak for articles “like this” that “seem to be written” by “people” — lotta weasel wording there for a simple working person, eh what? — who have “never been poor.” We can go round and round about the definition of poor, but if being out of work for a couple of years, with the utility cut-offs, and all the rest of it count, I’ve been poor. Dittoez after both crashes, 2000 and 2008. And plenty of rough patches before that, too. My first job in the mills paid $2.35 an hour. After a year, I got a raise! A dime. Is that poor? I dunno.

      Listen, I’m sorry that bringing my entire life experience to bear on the post offends you. Next time aesthetics rears its ugly head, I suggest you skip the post.

      (Incidentally, all the yammering about aesthetics rather proves my point; I don’t think that poor people, or working people, should have ugliness forced on them by Harkonnen-like overlords. Your mileage may vary and, apparently, does.)

      1. Mark J. Lovas

        Lambert, I was very glad to see you making this point in your original post. People deserve better than what they’ve got. It can’t be said often enough, and illustrating it with elements draw from daily experience seems to me to be exactly correct. I followed the link to your earlier musings on a return to the USA, and that, also, struck me as exactly right. Honest, and for that very reason open to attack. I’ve had similar impressions returning to the USA after spending time in Eastern Europe. (Especially about people being spatially separated from one another.) There’s a theoretic line on poetry which says it’s supposed to open our imaginations to seeing things about everyday life in a different or new way, or strange. That’s not quite the refined beauty which you find lacking in daily existence, but I think it is, on a different level, a complaint about the unnecessary ugliness of our ordinary experience. We live stale lives, but we need not do so. –Not because we, as individuals, are somehow lacking, but because such organization as our society possesses is misdirected. Of course, some readers will say that I am now playing the same elitist aesthetic game that you are, but I would like to show them, if I could, that things just don’t have to be so ugly, and that we all are a bit stupefied by what we take for granted. (To distill and exaggerate some of the comments, I see the following sort of misunderstanding: Lambert: the place where you buy bread is uglier than it needs to be. Reply: But I need to buy bread. Why are you attacking me? My imagined reply to the reply: this is not about the failing of individuals; it is about the society, the culture, how bread is made available to you, how it is produced, distributed…..and who decides all that…. )

    2. Stephanie

      Find myself agreeing with you there. Every so often I find myself at Aldi, which is big box ugliness in miniature, and always find it a strangely comforting/nostalgic experience. Nostalgic, in that it reminds me of the years when the boys were little and we needed food, any food, in the cupboard. Comforting in that if things get that bad again, I will have an option to again put food on the table.

      Another anecdote: About 15 years ago there was an e coli outbreak at a local (Minnesota) meat processor, tainting hamburger sold at local Cub and Kowalskis grocery stores. I found this hilarious, for the simple fact that at the time hamburger at Kowalskis sold for $3/pound more than did Cub for the exact same meat. At that time Kowalski had a sign in their produce section of the Summit Ave store stating that they charged they charged “a little more in order to enhance your shopping experience”. I’d already decided long before I didn’t need dried floral arrangements next to the banana in my “shopping experience”, but I really had to wonder who still did after that incident.

      Now, granted Lambert seems to be arguing that no one should have to pay anything extra for said flower arrangements, but at my ideal grocer-for-the-flush-times, I would rather be guaranteed safe meat, a selection of gluten free products that aren’t also loaded with honey or agave, and Honeycrisp apples that aren’t trucked all the way in from freaking Washington (not that I can eat them, but it’s the principle of the thing!).

  36. juliania

    I guess I am poor in some ways. I always take the bus, but it was a joyful feeling to say goodbye to that huge monthly car insurance bill and not be oppressed that my 300,000 plus miles vehicle (which had stood me in good stead when working, but ah, those years are way back when) could blow its transmission on the highway; or – little old lady that I am – I wasn’t going to be responsible for maiming or fatally injuring one of my fellow travellers. I like to ride the bus. It doesn’t depend on me riding it, so I am not a polluter but I get where I am going, get to sit and think, and maybe chat with somebody I haven’t met before.

    Yes, I always take the bus, but not sadly. And my trip is always nearly twice as long as yours was, Lambert. I know most of the others who do what I do, and some of them have trundlers bought at Walmart as I do. We all probably have ill-fitting, ‘deforming’ clothes by your standards Yves, but they are warm and comfortable.

    Most who ride don’t do the walking I do between stores to find organics, maybe. I read every label. I count every penny. I go only where the bus (or the train) goes. And it takes me a day, so I don’t do it often. The bus driver helps me get the trundler up onto the bus, or a passenger comes forward and helps me. I love that.

    I don’t much care about colors and décor, but I do mind the size of the store. I like that there are outside benches at Walmart where I can sit in the sun to wait for the bus. Very important that. I usually get one or two of the small tubs of good icecream, and I bring a lightweight book to read there. I especially love my freedom to do all of this. I watch all the cars rushing by, and I wonder if some day more folk will become hunter-gatherers like me.

    It could happen. Don’t worry; it is not a bad life, not at all.

    1. Lambert Strether

      I don’t mind the bus at all. It’s the bus that runs, rather irregularly, every hour, such that it takes half a day to get to the mall and back. That’s what I mind: The time suck.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        And the bus should be nice as well as punctual!

        In NYC, the nicest subway cars are on the Lex line, which runs from Spanish Harlem through the Upper East side to Wall Street. That is not an accident. Why aren’t the cars on the other lines as nice?

    2. buffalo cyclist

      Car dependency is a trap to force you to fork more money over to automobile companies, banks, mechanics, insurance companies, parking garages and Big Oil. Unfortunately, our society makes not owning a car as difficult as possible, all in the name of “freedom”.

  37. different clue

    This thread deserves a longer life than it will probably have as it sinks under the weight of ever newer and fresher threads.
    For now, all I have time to offer is two things: first an article by Mark Ames which addresses this issue from his deeply spite-based perspective.
    This new digi-reprint of the article is missing a couple of photographs that the original on eXile had . . . a most unflattering photograph of some midAmerican fat people watching TV, and a photo of Old Mr. Walton wearing a baseball cap and looking all “proletarian” for the camera.

    The other thing is a snarky little minor classic book called Class by Paul Fussell. It is a cheerfully caricatured look at the visible and audible culture-stuff indicators of what class you are by what indicators you have and display. The information in that book could be learned and weaponized for use in Class BrainWar mobilization projects. You can bet Bush was waging very sophisticated Class BrainWar when he pronounced it “nukular”. Learn it, live it, love it. Here is the link.

  38. bob

    The awning was built to disguse the HVAC and systems above the ‘bakery’. Big hood vents required for the fryers, chimneys for the ovens, and compressors for the refrigerators.

    “big box” is called that partly because the building is a simple “box”. Everything else is built inside, or bolted on to “the box”.

    Different stores do it differently, usually part of the “brand” of the store. But, all are cinder block walls built on concrete slab or piers (soil dependent) with a flat roof supported by lattice like steel frames running between the walls. Then the HVAC for the store (people) is hung off that lattice.

    Some stores cover different parts, some draw attention to the HVAC with paint. They bolt on different “awnings” and paint things differently. But, most all buildings, in a given area, built recently, will all be the same thing. Cinderblock with a steel lattice supported roof.

    Hiding that, or rather “branding” it is how taget looks different from walmart. It’s most akin to drapes in a normal residential “house”. Dressing. Packaging.

    It also looks like the “awning” over the bread store is the same thing. Made to look “useful” but in fact just decoration.

    Awnings are normally used to protect from sun/weather. I would suggest that both examples aren’t “awnings” but advertising and branding dressed up as something that looks “useful”. The only difference being that an awning outside might make sense. Too bad they didn’t make it an awning.

    1. bob

      There is also an entire “industry” in construction built around ‘staging’ within these boxes. Higher rent stores will “rent out” room for a brand within the store, and allow the brand to fit it out. No money spared. Mahogany walls? Sure, no problem. Build it inside the box. They usually do it overnight. Very impressive ‘looking’ but it’s only skin deep.

  39. Jim

    I shop at Walmart. There is great value to me in shopping there, and I will continue to do so. It’s that simple.

  40. PNW_WarriorWoman

    Lambert…those of us following the disastrous Common Core and the deforming and privatization of public education ask the same thing as you in this well done piece: “Why can’t poor kids have excellent public schools? Why can’t poor kids even GO to public school anymore?”

  41. Bert

    Your focus should be on the true enemy of humanity. The central banking system, entitlements and War Inc… ALL THREE THE WORKING TAXPAYER WOULD BE FAR BETTER OFF WITHOUT!!

    But, go ahead, who will you pick on next? Here are some ideas: Indian casinos that a run like they were mobbed up, pro sports teams that pay no federal taxes and demand taxpayer paid stadiums.

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