Cart Blanche?

"The Wal-Mart Effect" author Charles Fishman at a Hagerstown "supercenter." (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006

It's just a big old sack of dog food, for crying out loud, but Charles Fishman can hardly restrain himself: "Fifty pounds for $13.82! That's amazing!" the author of "The Wal-Mart Effect" bursts out. "That's less than 30 cents a pound!"

You'd think the guy would be a bit jaded by now. Fishman has schlepped through more than a hundred Wal-Marts in 23 states, trying to chart the nearly unfathomable influence of the retail behemoth Americans have learned to love, hate or take for granted. But he's never been to the one in Hagerstown, through which we're piloting a shopping cart on a weekday afternoon -- and he's calling out bargains like a hyperactive carnival barker.

"$3.88 for a rake! How much cheaper could the rake actually be before it was free ? You know what I mean?"

We've driven 65 miles out from the District of Columbia, one of the nation's few Wal-Mart-free zones, to get here. A closer option would have been one of the two stores in Alexandria, but they're normal-sized Wal-Marts, the kind that stock a mere 60,000 products. I've asked Fishman to show me around a "supercenter," the extra-humongous kind that stocks 120,000 products and boasts a full-size grocery store.

Wal-Mart No. 1,674 is a nondescript, boxlike structure, an eighth of a mile wide and a football field deep, that makes neighbors such as Home Depot, Borders, Pier One and Circuit City look like Georgetown boutiques. Outside, discarded Wal-Mart bags festoon a field like unpicked cotton bolls. Inside, canyons of merchandise envelop us: Easter candy, power tools, bras, microwaves and green plastic margarita glasses, stacked on shelving higher than our heads.

Wal-Mart loves to experiment, Fishman says, hence the recently opened upscale store in Plano, Tex., which features sushi, microbrews and a coffee shop with Wi-Fi. But there's not a lot of experimentation visible in No. 1,674. The Hagerstown supercenter is built on the same principle as the nearly 4,000 other U.S. Wal-Marts, the principle that has driven the company's growth since Sam Walton opened the first store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962, and the one Wal-Mart management expects to fuel its recently announced move into blighted urban areas -- one of the few parts of the American landscape it has yet to conquer.

It's right there on the ubiquitous blue-and-yellow smiley-faced signs: "Always Low Prices. Always."

"A hundred-foot heavy-duty outdoor extension cord: My God, it must weigh eight pounds! $9.68. That's truly amazing!"

For more than two hours, the Wal-Mart Tour rolls on and, as it does, I drop an occasional item into the cart. This is partly so we'll look normal walking around the store, but it's also because -- as someone who doesn't get to Wal-Mart that often -- I'm almost as excited about the prices as my guide.

Where am I going to get a better deal on light bulbs or shaving cream or the half-socks my daughter just told me she needs?

'What's Your Price?'

We think we know all about Wal-Mart. But we don't.

It's a fantastic American success story, built on entrepreneurial genius and hard work, whose rock-bottom prices are a boon to the nation's working families. Or it's a soulless corporate empire that decimates small-town shopping districts, pays its workers poverty wages and restricts their access to decent health care.

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