Arrived late to the Black Friday demonstration at the Super WalMart on Federal Highway in Boynton Beach last week, around 11 a.m. Robust turnout, seventy or so protestors chanting and marching in a long oval along the sidewalk by the highway near the store's parking lot. Most were Walmart employees from Miami, we later learn, with a scattering of the usual local lefties: MoveOn, Occupy, Raging Grannies. They were imploring Walmart shoppers to boycott the store for its cheap-ass wages and benefits
There was a gaggle of cops out too. They were up on the sidewalk by the store, hunched up in their shades, milling about, nothing to do but surveil and clock overtime. If any shoppers were upset or feeling hassled, it was not evident. They just cruised on up off the road into the lot in their SUVs, not a handwave or honk to be seen or heard.
It was boring, in other words, worker solidarity notwithstanding, and we decided to go inside and poke around. What was it like in the belly of the retail beast under the gun?
Not even inside yet and there was data: Sales Associate Edward (everyone has name tags), an older black dude with a fringe of grey-white hair around his bald crown, was sitting on a bench talking to Store Manager Ken, a tall, geeky young white guy. "Couple of them tried to get my info," Edward confided to Ken. "I told them, 'Union? No way.'" Store Manager Ken grinned, nodded head approvingly, strode off purposefully into the parking lot. We would have talked to Edward but that seemed like it would be asking for trouble. Clearly, everyone was on alert.
Inside, it was quiet, the early Black Friday crush past, though a full complement of cashiers stood ready at their registers. The building was a bright, clean, shiny, airy space--a football field of consumer goods under the lights and high ceilings, gleaming surfaces everywhere.
Stuff was cheap! A case of house-brand bottled water was $3.48! Strawberries were $2.48 a pound! (Half the price of Publix!) Sweet potatoes $.38 a pound! (What's with the "8"s? What's wrong with "9"?)
District Manager Robert--easy grin, nattily dressed, semi-hip short-cut brush-forward 'do--notices we're taking notes, wanders over. Super-friendly, very very pleasant, he asked me what's up.
"Taking notes," we said, going into equally friendly/chatty mode. "Trying to grab some color. Protestors outside but, really, that's only because Walmart is so popular. There's a reason you're successful. Want to show what it is that gets people in here. Not a political thing." He understands completely, smiles more. Corporate doesn't allow prices to be published, as a rule, but if it's for a story...
Any chance Robert wants to offer some comment on the Black Friday protest?
Referred us to corporate.
So what about yourself? Been with the company a while?
"Twenty-five years," District Manager Robert said, grinning. "Started out in southwest Oklahoma. Assembling bicycles. Running seven stores now." Pleased with the arc of his career, he loosened up a bit, picked up on the "Walmart successful" theme. Asks me if I've been in FL a while and if I know what kind of shoddy place occupied the Federal Highway location before Walmart graced it with its presence. "Used to be a...a strip club
!" he confided, triumphantly.
We're cleared, no threat, and wandered further into the store. Deli greeted us, meat was looking good, the house label, sliced and packaged, looking clean and fresh. Asked passing Sales Associate (missed his name) about organic meats or deli and was passed on to deli counter Sales Associate (missed name again) who apologized--just not a Walmart thing.
Wander further, browsing sausages. Sausage on the brain for some reason, thinking of London and the rich variety of links there. Selection uninteresting, not at all like London--even at Walmart, you can't have everything. (Though we note, amidst the major brands, Roger Woods Smoked Sausage, an artisanal-looking regional out of Savannah GA. Roger
must be happy, being picked up by the world's largest retailer.)
Assistant Manager Brian approached, a young man with close-cropped blond hair and more girth than health. Like District Manager Robert, he was pleasant as all get-out but curious about our note-taking. We've spoken with District Manager Robert, we explained, and besides (not wanting get into a discussion of our bonafides), are there really no organic meats?
Well actually, there are, it turns out. Assistant Manager Brian led us back around to the deli and a refrigerated shelf of poultry, where he pointed to a small section with chicken in bright green cellophane packaging. It wasn't organic organic, but it's close enough--antibiotic-free, cage-free (though not "free-range") and "humanely raised." Walmart's got it covered!
Assistant Manager Brian motored away, in deep communication with whoever was on the other end of his headset (all the brass wear headsets).
Not before we screw up, though: Caught up in our chatty/friendly strategem we let slip that the deli grunts were unaware the store carries alternative chicken. Did Assistant Manager Brian make note? Are the deli grunts even now, for misinforming a customer, under probation following a severe tongue-lashing, black marks on their permanent records? Mea culpa.
We wandered further, through health and beauty (heavy emphasis on ethnic hair care) on through toys and candy and bedding and...everything--every retail sales good known to humankind. Half an hour of input and our head was spinning: It is a wonder, and we find ourselves thinking of things we need at home--shower curtain, shaving gear... But no: Think of the picket line outside. Solidarity!
We do need batteries for the camera, however, and grant ourselves journalistic dispensation. Hunt down some AA's and we're ready for checkout. We wanted to use the bathroom, though, and we were not sure about doing that with such a shoplifter-friendly item in hand.
We left the AAs with a checkout clerk (name withheld) and proceeded. The bathrooms were very customer-friendly! Clean! Spacious: two oversize, wheelchair-accessible stalls with sinks! And two changing stations! People with disabilities and people with children are always welcome at Walmart!
Went through checkout, where the checkout clerk, a young black woman, was atypically quiet, almost surly (why we're withholding her name). Efficient though, let it be known. We paid and left (without attempting to engage her in conversation--we've already caused enough grief for the grunts).
One last look around. One snapshot to test the camera (results below). A most informative hour with Walmart.
Back down on the street at the protest site and everyone was gone. We asked the last stragglers where everyone went. Marilyn, a MoveOn supporter with a red pixie haircut, handed me an "Abolish Corporate Personhood" flyer. "Everybody left," she says. "The workers had to get to work."
* * *
At day's end Friday, Walmart describe
d Black Friday 2012 as its "best ever." On Sunday, a fire in a Walmart supplier's
Bangladesh factory--where they really squeeze the workers for those low, low prices--left more than 100 dead
. Here's what that checkout line looked like:
Fire Ant--an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite--covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org