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Scott M. Paton

Has Wal-Mart Lost Its Way?

What would Sam Walton think of what Wal-Mart has become?



Because I travel frequently I’m often in unfamiliar towns at odd hours. And because I’m somewhat forgetful, I’m also likely to be at a Wal-Mart at odd hours. Although I’m always glad to be able to get what I need when I need it, I’ve come to approach Wal-Mart with a mix of hope and fear.

Sam Walton, the shrewd good ol’ boy that he was, understood that his customers wanted to buy stuff at low prices in clean, easy-to-navigate stores filled with helpful, courteous employees. Unfortunately, aside from rock-bottom prices, little of Sam Walton’s dream is left.

I wonder if Wal-Mart executives ever venture outside of Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters. Have they ever wandered the aisles of a Wal-Mart at midnight in search of a toothbrush, diapers or cold medicine?

I wish Sam could have been with me when I was stranded in Minneapolis late one night. Of course, the only store open was a Wal-Mart. My wife, Heidi, needed some makeup, so she asked a Wal-Mart employee for assistance. The young woman held up her hand, gave us the “talk to the hand” look and then proceeded to take a massager from its box, plug it in, give herself a back massage, put it back in the box and return it to the shelf. She then wandered away.

What would Sam have thought?

I also wish that he could have been with me during my visit to a Wal-Mart in Miami. Again, I was shopping late. This time I had my wife and three-year-old son, Ian, with me. While I was paying for my items, Ian asked to ride the ride at the front of the store. I agreed, but I had no change.

“May I have change for a dollar?” I asked the cashier.

“No,” she replied. “You pay with debit card. I not open drawer.”

“OK, where can I get change?”

“At service desk.”

I made my way to the customer service desk at the front of the store.

“We closed! We closed!” I was told before I could even open my mouth.

“But your store is open 24 hours, and I need change for the machine out front,” I said.

“We closed! Go to cashier.” Then she walked off.

I waited in stunned disbelief for a minute or two, pondering my next move: A showdown with the world’s largest retailer or explaining to a jet-lagged three-year-old that he couldn’t ride the ride. I decided to take on Wal-Mart.

Another employee walked over to the customer service desk, ignoring me.

“I need change for the machine out front,” I said.

“We closed! See cashier!”

“Please. My son is crying.”

“OK,” he answered, snatching my dollar bill and disappearing behind a door. I could hear a heated exchange. Words like “dinero,” “gringo” and “chico” were tossed back and forth. He reappeared two minutes later with four quarters, thrust them into my wife’s hand and left.

At least Ian will get his ride, I thought. Of course, when we dropped the coins into the machine, it didn’t work. More tears were shed.

Now I was a man on a mission. I marched over to the greeter ready to do battle.

In the commercials, Wal-Mart greeters are always kindly grandfathers or sweet grandmothers. This guy looked like he just got out of jail.

“The machine took my coins but isn’t working,” I said.

“Go service desk,” he mumbled.

“They’re closed.”

“Go! Service desk!” he said, pointing at the deserted customer service counter.

So, off to the customer service desk again. “Hello! Can anybody help me?”

The same woman who wouldn’t help me the first time appeared.

“We close…”

“Yes, I know you’re closed, but your machine took my money and isn’t working!”

“Go see lady in red vest,” she said, pointing toward the middle of the store.

I turned to look, saw no woman and no red vest. So, I walked into the middle of the checkout area and started yelling, “Where is the lady in the red vest? Where is the lady in the red vest?” Surprisingly, the police didn’t show up, but neither did the lady in the red vest. I began to walk the aisles and soon spotted my elusive quarry. She was huddled with several other red-vested ladies.

“Are you the lady in the red vest?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said calmly. I’m sure she thought I was color-blind, drunk or high.

“Your machine took my money. Your cashier wouldn’t give change. The service desk is closed. Help!”

I was fairly certain she thought I was crazy, but a remarkable thing happened. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Come with me.”

She actually said, “I’m sorry.” It was like manna from heaven. She led me to the closed customer service desk. I babbled all the way there. “I’m sorry. It’s not the money; it’s the principle.”

“I know,” she said. “If someone took even 10 cents from me, I’d be mad too.”

She disappeared behind the door and reappeared with a form. A form for 50 cents?

Is this the Wal-Mart of Sam Walton?

Take my advice, Bentonville boys: Get out of Arkansas and go visit your stores late at night. And take a toddler with you.


About the author

Scott M. Paton is Quality Digest’s publisher.