Ruth Bass: Walmart mess is more than picking up
Every kid would like to eat his birthday cake and then find that it was still there in front of him. Most every country has an expression that is the equivalent of our "You can't have your cake and eat it, too." And the idea is centuries old. However it's said, we keep trying to devour the sweet and still have it.
We have a number of giant chain stores that depend on Chinese-manufactured goods to keep their prices down and their business up. And hundreds of residents flock to them, sometimes getting good buys and sometimes getting what they pay for.
One assumes that Wal-Mart's regular shoppers include some central Berkshire folks who also think it would be really nice if North Street in Pittsfield recovered. But most of them have decided someone else will do the North Street shopping. They want to have their downtown and crush it, too.
That's what Pittsfield's Walmart -- now designated by a Forbes writer as being in "total disarray" -- does to the economy of Pittsfield's downtown: crushes it.
The fact that downtown Lee is coming alive, despite the tempting outlets on the hill, apparently means that most of the shoppers up there come in from miles around. The fact that Great Barrington's Main Street is a prize example of downtown survival has more than a little to do with an unbelievable number of places to eat and many enticing shops. It helps that it sits in the midst of a second-homers corral.
When Walter Loeb wrote his criticism of Pittsfield's Walmart, he noted that employees weren't interested in fixing the mess -- like picking up the clothes on the floor where some careless shopper had left them.
On the other hand, why would a Walmart employee go an extra mile? The company is famous for merchandise made by underpaid workers in China, it has been sued by employees and, in Massachusetts four years ago, had to pay $40 million to settle a wage-and-hour class action suit.
The company has been accused of depriving workers of meal breaks and paying women less than men. Gender discrimination was front and center in Pittsfield when pharmacist Cynthia Haddad took on the giant and won, with Walmart ordered to pay a total of $2 million for failing to pay her what the male pharmacists earned. It does not seem outlandish to figure gender discrimination has occurred elsewhere in the company's 8,500 stores.
At one time or another, we all go to the big chain stores for something. I've been to Walmart three times -- once for tennis balls before other retailers absorbed the idea that people played tennis here in the winter; once for a small inflatable bed I couldn't find elsewhere; and once for an adjustable cane when a local medical supply store was out of them. It was a challenge each time and not ever fun.
It's too bad that First Agricultural Bank left downtown, that Berkshire Life left downtown, that The Berkshire Eagle left downtown, that Berkshire Community College left downtown. Shoppers spilled out of those places. But each had business reasons for moving, and the ability to adjust is essential in economics.
The street is coping with change, but it's snail slow. The variety of restaurants increases every year, from Maplewood Avenue to Park Square; some upscale and intriguing shops are open; Donna Rivers' bead place is hanging in another year; perhaps Persnickety Toys can become to North Street what Tom's Toys has been to Great Barrington. To the north, Carr Hardware competes with the big boys and has enough employees to make personal service part of the deal.
The missing ingredient is the people who think North Street's future has nothing to do with them. They're eating bargain cake, and it's not necessarily a good deal. North Street needs more than crumbs.