Alex Knapp has an interesting post about the virtues of the Wal-Marting of America.
There’s not much doubt Wal-Mart is more efficient than any of its competitors. As the article states, they have the power to blackmail suppliers into offering rock-bottom prices unavailable to other stores, including the mom and pops. So, for commodity goods (those that are identical wherever you go), no one can really compete with Wal-Mart other than the emulators–other gigantic chains like Target, Home Depot, etc.
There is something of a down side to all this, though: We give up customer service for cheaper products. Whereas a local merchant cares very much about pleasing customers, none of the “associates” at Wal-Mart has any incentive to care. It is rare that you can find anyone who has any expertise in their products to offer comparative shopping advice, you have to wait in long lines to return defective products, have to walk miles around a poorly-organized warehouse building to buy things, and otherwise become more of an automaton. People who would have owned their own little store or been a manager at someone else’s store now wear blue smocks and become “associates” of the corporation; rather than being “somebodies” in their community, they are now lowly service employees. Or, they have to figure out a way to exploit a niche Wal-Mart can’t, in a more service-oriented sector.
This isn’t to say Wal-Mart is bad, just that there are trade-offs involved. Personally, I shop at Wal-Mart or Target for commodities when I can in order to get lower prices. But it can be a frustrating and, frankly, dehumanizing experience sometimes. I very seldom have bad experiences when I deal with proprietor-operated establishments; I seldom have good ones at Wal-Mart.