When Walmart comes to town, will there be much left of it?

The following column is reprinted with permission from my local newspaper, the Delta Optimist. While it relates to an issue currently evolving in my community, it really applies to every community across North America, and perhaps beyond, where Walmart has set up shop.

I had no idea what to write for my column this week.

So I sought advice from someone who always has lots to say: Lee LeMoignan, owner of Pets-N-Us in Ladner. Lee has an opinion on almost everything: the high cost of beer, government control, people who don’t pick up after their dogs, the list goes on. Some merchants like to give free samples; Lee likes to give free advice.

Naturally, I was curious what he thought about Walmart coming to one of the mega malls planned by the Tsawwassen First Nation. The mammoth U.S. retailer is owned by the richest family in the world – a family with more wealth than the bottom 40 per cent of Americans combined.

A quintessential big-box store, Walmart is known for destroying local businesses and pillaging the economies of small-town America, not to mention the company’s questionable labour practices that are the subject of Robert Greenwald’s 2005 documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.

There is almost nothing Walmart doesn’t sell, and that alone must have local businesses trembling like a grocery buggy with a broken wheel during a flour sack sale. I assumed Lee would be the same; his excellent customer service and industry knowledge no match for this greedy multinational corporation.

But he’s OK with it – something about living in a capitalist society and how people should be able to shop where they want to shop and governments shouldn’t interfere just because they don’t like what’s on the menu or how it was prepared.

Of course I disagreed with him and a debate ensued about the culture of consumerism. Then it occurred to me: this was exactly the reason I don’t want Walmart moving in. The level of conversation I was having with Lee would never take place inside a Walmart. First of all, the door greeter would be preoccupied eyeballing my lumpy jacket for stolen merchandise, and the cashier would be too busy and under too much pressure to engage in anything beyond the requisite formalities:

“Hi, how are you today?”

“Crappy. Your store just put mine out of business. I’m here buying crackers for the staff farewell luncheon.”

“Sorry to hear that. Did you bring your own bags today?”

I’m also certain any Walmart isn’t going to dedicate a little corner of its pet supply department to a homeless cat from the Delta Community Animal Shelter to help it find a new family; and I’ll be gobsmacked if I see Walmart handing over a cheque for $1,400 to the shelter, which is what Lee did in January after holding a Pet Photos with Santa fundraiser.

Lee isn’t alone in his efforts. Local businesses support the community in innumerable ways individually and through the collective endeavours of the Ladner and Tsawwassen business associations. These groups are behind countless monetary donations to worthwhile causes and put on or sponsor some of the biggest events in our communities.

It all comes down to a certain sense of citizenship that I believe small business owners have that mega corporations run by people who aren’t our neighbours and who don’t live in our community – or sometimes even our country – don’t.

I hope Walmart doesn’t come to town. And if it does, I hope I’m wrong about the trail of devastation it will leave. And if I’m wrong, Lee LeMoignan will be the first to remind me every time I drop by his store for dog food.