I’ve been very much looking forward to getting back to Britain and writing about the various idiosyncrasies and customs that I find strange there (flaming tar barrels, anyone?) However, I realize that some of the people who read this blog actually live in England and would most definitely find aspects of American life strange. (On the other hand, I do live in Florida, which is strange compared to the rest of America no matter which way you cut it.)
So today I’ve decided to cover a very important aspect of American life: Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart is unlike any retailer I’ve ever come across in Britain. They have everything. The one closest to our house is a SUPER Wal-Mart, which means they have even MORE of everything than a regular Wal-Mart.
Let’s start with some basic information. Your average Wal-Mart Superstore is approximately 186,000 square feet, a fact readily found on Wal-Mart’s Community Information Fact Sheets. By contrast, Exeter Cathedral is 29,600 square feet, according to this website. This means that no less than SIX Exeter Cathedrals could fit inside a single Wal-Mart Superstore. (Unless I’ve done my math horribly wrong, which is entirely possible.)
In fairness, Wal-Mart is a lot flatter than Exeter Cathedral. That’s because it is what is known as a “big box store,” something not very popular in England (though there are a few – Super Tesco comes to mind). England has a lot of Victorian, Edwardian, Elizabethan, Medieval and Roman architecture lying around, which takes up so much room that you couldn’t really squeeze a whole lot of big box stores in even if you wanted to. Florida, by contrast, is almost entirely made up of shopping plazas full of big box retailers, including the one in my town where the roof collapsed a couple years ago.
But back to Wal-Mart. They have, as far as I can tell, every commercially available product known to man for sale under their roof (or outside in the garden center.) Each store has approximately twenty departments. You can buy everything from cantaloupes to computer paper to cups (both bra and table) to cell phones to car seats. And that’s just the letter C! You can buy a Wii to have fun with, some beer to go with it, the TV to play it on, the TV stand, and a complete emergency first aid kit for when you trip over the coffee table, which you bought at Wal-Mart earlier, and land headlong in the TV after combining the first two purchases.
I suppose regular department stores aren’t so different from what I just described, except that most don’t have a grocery section, and most aren’t laid out on one giant floor. Wal-mart does have some unique characteristics to set it apart, though. A few years back Wal-Marts started providing other services. You can now get your prescriptions filled or go to a medical clinic for an exam there. You can cash checks. They will do your taxes, provide you with investment services, give you a credit card. Some locations have a car service center. Wal-Mart now provides internet service and even classified listings. And of course you can set up your wedding gift registry there.
I am wary of Wal-Mart. I think most people are. On the other hand, if I need to get an item quickly, like pens or something, I’ll go to the Wal-Mart. And if I’ve tried everywhere else to find something but haven’t been able to – a special size of band-aid, little plastic bottles for putting toiletries in, that sort of thing – I can usually find it at Wal-Mart.
My dad and I were at Wal-Mart earlier today picking up some random and seemingly disconnected items for his business (a small bottle of Listerine, a car detailing brush, and a bit of microfiber cloth, if you must know.) Briefly, we got separated. I actually had to call my dad on the phone to figure out where he was.
As I watched people move around the store I noticed distinct stages: first, they’d whip around the store with their carts, fiercely determined looks on their faces as they trekked from one end of the store to the other. Then, a brief period of rejoicing once they’d found their products, after much searching high and low, back and forth, round and round, etc, plus running over people’s toes with the cart because they were so determined to get where they were going. Finally, a slack-jawed befuddled trip trying to find the front of the store again. Heaven help you if you have more than one thing to get.
On the bright side, if you can’t find the front of the store, there are handy tents in the camping section, and flashlights for when they close the store at night, and grills for feeding yourself, and toys and finger paint sets with which to amuse yourself, strategically placed restrooms… Like I said, they have everything. EVERYTHING!