Time for another installment in a series to answer the question:  Under what circumstances does having a Wal-Mart seem like a good idea?

Now that I’ve touched on how transportation affects development, let’s take a look at local businesses.  When I was a kid, prior to there being a Wal-Mart in Little Falls, shoppers were hard pressed to find particular items sold at local stores.  There were very few clothing stores that catered to children or teens.  Lad-n-Lassie was the one children’s clothing store I knew of and it sold very high-end young children’s clothing.  It was not easy (try impossible) for those on a low-income budget to afford clothing at Lad-n-Lassie.  There were several women’s clothing stores, including Loretta’s and The Misses Shop, but they catered to older women, not teen girls.  The one local men’s clothing store was Victor’s, which sold suits, suits, and more suits in your choice of grey, grey, or grey.  Hardly the sort of thing teen boys were wearing to school.  There was a limited clothing selection for teens at places like Pamida and White Mart, but these stores were basically the forerunners to Wal-Mart (i.e. big chain stores) and they didn’t carry much in the way of trendy clothing.  For that, we had to go to St. Cloud shopping.  The Crossroads Mall was the place to be.

When Wal-Mart came to town in 1991, this was the general clothing situation.  Wal-Mart, in essence, filled a local vacuum, offering inexpensive clothing for all ages, from baby on up, and both sexes.  Memory isn’t serving me at the moment as to the exact chain of events, but both Pamida and White Mart eventually went out of business.  Wal-Mart may have had something to do with this, but remember, these were both chain stores, not local mom-and-pop shops.  The Misses Shop went out of business, but this was more because its elderly owners wanted to get out of business, rather than because of anything Wal-Mart was doing.  Victor’s also folded, but was not really in competition with Wal-Mart because the store sold suits, which still isn’t Wal-Mart’s forte.  Loretta’s eventually closed, but Bon Jo’s, another women’s clothing store, is still downtown.  The east end Little Falls business district (near the bypass on/off ramps) also has Maurice’s, a trendy clothing store aimed at young men and women.  Maurice’s came to town after Wal-Mart.

Once White Mart and Pamida went out of business, there were few places for people to buy daily sundries at low prices.  You could pick up toilet paper and toothpaste and aftershave at one of the local drug stores, or a convenience store, or one of the two grocery stores in town (Hinck’s – now Parker’s, or Coborn’s), but you wouldn’t necessarily get the best selection or price.  (The death of neighborhood grocery stores had occurred long before Wal-Mart came to town.)  Once again, Wal-Mart filled a void.

Why might low prices be such a drawing point?  Other than people’s natural love of a good deal, price wouldn’t be much of a factor if the city’s residents were making a decent living wage.  In Little Falls, the upper class consists of successful business owners, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and . . . this may shock you . . . teachers.  In a country where teachers belong to one of the lowest paid professions, when it comes to Little Falls, teachers of the tenured sort tend to be seen as upper middle class.  Strange, isn’t it?  But not if you look at the rest of the employment situation.

Many local businesses pay the lowest wages they can possibly get away with.  They hire workers part-time and offer no benefits.  Some have their employees work overtime without proper compensation.  Some don’t allow their employees the break times required by law.  Some pay employees cash under the table.    Very few employees are unionized.  Teachers and hospital workers are the two groups of employees I can think of that have unions in Little Falls.  (If there are others, let me know.)  Are these business practices starting to sound familiar?  They should.  Wal-Mart has been accused (and sued) over these very issues.

Business owners have a mantra, which I swear was made up by some rah-rah business guru.  They will say, “I’m taking all the risk,” in relation to their business, as though their employees are no more than expendable cogs in a replaceable gear.  They think that their employees should be happy to have a job, grateful for whatever morsels they are paid, while they take home the lion’s share of the business’s income to fritter it away on the finer things (luxury boats, massive homes, lake homes, three/four cars, far-flung vacations) in life.  Never mind that their employees can’t keep food on the table or afford to buy the things these businesses are selling.  Wal-Mart starts to look pretty good as an employer in comparison.

This by no means is a diatribe against all local business owners, although it may sound that way.  I understand full well the difficulties of running a business, especially when you’re just starting out.  You might be forgiven for offering a pittance in wages if you barely have the cash flow to keep your doors open.  But if you find yourself complaining that you can’t afford the monster-sized high-speed boat or the gold-plated faucets for your bathroom remodeling project, stop and reexamine what your employees are going through.

End of lecture.

But not the end of the series.

Giving lessons in being a blowfish, yours truly,

Phineas F. A. Pickerel

(To be continued.)