Since my move to Tennessee besides acclimating to my new job, my life has revolved around ordering items on Amazon Prime, swiping left on Tinder and driving to the local Walmart Supercenter. Tennessee ranks eighth in the nation for the number of Walmart Supercenters. There are 117 Supercenters in Tennessee, about 14 for every-one million residents. There is something about walking around the large brightly lit store, observing other shoppers, chatting up any available store clerks about such innocuous things as the mild winter weather or the Tennessee Vols and buying items that I will later return that makes me feel less isolated in a new place.
In Knoxville, I can easily choose from any of the nine nearby Walmart locations. I usually pick the one near my apartment because I like proving to myself that, even though I learned how to drive only six months ago, I can navigate the most dangerous road in Knoxville: Chapman Highway. Built as the main entryway into the Smokey Mountains, the six-mile stretch is cluttered with small plazas accommodating vape shops advertising CBD hemp oils, auto-related stores selling used tires, mufflers, and brakes, gas stations, cash-checking places, gyms, fast food joints and old motor lodges. Chapman is considered more fatal for drivers than its sister roadway, Alcoa “I’ll Kill Ya” highway as the locals have dubbed it. I drive slowly keeping one eye on the road and the other on the store fronts. There is “God’s Place Auto Sales” where a small food truck selling Mexican food is always parked, then the offices to “Praise FM 96.3” radio station which prides itself on being the only station in the city to have its own meteorologist–followed by countless rows of single-family homes, churches, grocery stores, pawn shops, and tobacco and liquor stores. My favorite store is the “Arby’s” with the original giant ten-gallon hat featuring the logo of a cowboy hat outlined in neon colors–“Arby’s Roast Beef Sandwich is Delicious.” In 1975 the chain store redesigned its logo and the classic road sign is today a rarity. Most of the stores on Chapman Highway do not stick out, their muted colors of beige and yellow blend with the background of naked trees and sky. Other stores are abandoned and on a gloomy day like today they only add to melancholic feelings of loneliness. The windy road lulls me into consumerist submission and, before I know it, I am making a left on Carson Pointe Plaza, a sprawling strip mall which houses Walmart, Ruby Tuesdays, Home Depot, Walgreens, Game Stop, Dollar Tree, a nail salon that sells CBD oils, an all you can eat Chinese food joint, an abandoned Radio Shack store and a gas station. On most days, the parking lot of Walmart is half full of shoppers’ cars and I happily join families pushing their shopping carts into the store.
Going to Walmart has become a ubiquitous part of life in America. Charles Fisherman, the author of the Wal-Mart Effect marvels that “at any given moment in the U.S., there are 850,000 Americans inside Walmart stores.” Walmart SuperCenters are built around three consumer needs: groceries, pharmaceutical drugs and diesel fuel. Many of its stores also are equipped with other services like hair salons, money centers for check cashing, vision centers, and fast food joints. My move to Knoxville coincided with a high-tech revolution sweeping Walmart stores. While disappointed to not find the “Auto C” robot floor cleaners, my local Walmart did install a pick-up tower which is essentially a giant vending machine for online orders that saves customers money on shipping. Once you scan your order code, a box comes down a giant orange shoot and delivers you a package. After I pick up a package or buy stuff I don’t always need I like to walk around the town center Walmart is located in. Strip malls such as these are really the only places outside of downtown areas that have sidewalks.
As a city kid, I was socialized by the sidewalk while most suburban American teenagers hung out at the mall, a place where they first experienced some level of unsupervised interaction. Yet what we all shared in common was the experience of observing and recording the interactions that sidewalks and malls forged. Shopping at a mall or running to the corner store was just an excuse for bearing witness to the strangeness of daily life. And where can encounter more weird stuff than a visit to your local Walmart?
Next to its logo, “more for less,” Walmart is most famous for the strange occurrences that happen daily inside the stores, including botched burglary attempts like the Louisiana manwho stole an electric powered shopping cart from Walmart to drive to the local bar to avoid a DWI, encounters with wild animals, and even dead bodies discovered in its parking lots. Since 2015, in Brevard county Florida, police have investigated at least half a dozen parking lot deaths.Three years later, Florida based newspapers reported on a string of deaths outside of Walmart parking lots. Of course the most recent horrific tragedy occurred last August when shortly after posting an anti-immigrant manifesto motivated by white nationalist ideology on the online messaging board 8chan, 21-year old Patrick Crusius drove 600 miles from his hometown to a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, unloading his AK-47 and killing 22 people and injuring countless others to avenge what he called “The Hispanic invasion of Texas.”Lifeless bodies lay inside the store and outside the parking lot in the Cielo Vista Supercenter. Only days after the reopening of the Walmart in El Paso, a gunman shot two victims, one of whom was a Walmart employee and then himself outside its parking lot in Duncan, Oklahoma.
Walmart is the Venice Beach of people watching for those that can’t afford vacations. Writing a review about a local Walmart near me, one shopper disclosed: “It’s Walmart not a boutique on Rodeo Drive so don’t expect a pleasant experience, sometimes the store is clean, sometimes you’ll feel the need to shower. The staff is polite (by Walmart standards) and of course it’s cheap. The other shoppers look like extras in a Mad Max film and that’s entertaining and scary.”You may even run into celebrities, like Wendy Williams, the gossip queen who was recently photographed by paparazzi roaming a Walmart in upstate New York at 4 in the morning. Most of Walmart customer’s claim to fame is an appearance on “the People of Walmart,” an entertainment website offering user-submitted pictures of Walmart shoppers usually in outrageous outfits or engaging in wild behavior. The website was founded by three twenty-year olds who were inspired by a grocery trip to a local Walmart in South Carolina. There they saw a woman dressed in what the men classified as “stripper wear” wearing a shirt that read “Go F—– Yourself” with a two-year-old in a child harness. This encounter was the raison d’etrefor their website, a parody of Walmart shoppers. Founded a year after the last Great Recession, the website quickly went viral. The outfits and behaviors of shoppers at Walmart defy the behaviors and customs of suburban and hipster aesthetics. Walmart shoppers are not photogenic, or clean cut and far from the photos of people that appear on picture frames the store sells. They are instead photographed wearing revealing clothing–shorts and shirts that are too tight for their bodies. The featured Walmart shoppers are the poor, the overweight, the under-dressed, generally photographed in awkward positions or carting around exotic pet animals. For example, there was the photo of an older man wheeling around the store holding a pet ferret and also that of the couple shopping while walking their pet turtle on a leash. It’s no wonder, NPR recently termed Walmart the “high-def pageant of popular culture”where the strange realities of American social life make themselves visible. For example, last year, the video of an 11 year-old kid yodeling at a local Walmart in Harrisburg, Illinois went viral and got 200,000 likes. His yodeling and singing at local Walmartgot the attention of musicians and other celebrities. Walmart held a concert for Mason Ramseyand encouraged his fans to participate in a #YodelChallenge where people were invited to record themselves yodeling in the aisles of the store. Since then, the Walmart Yodel boy has released his first single.
In recent years, Walmart has also found itself embroiled in the war against opioid addiction. People buy and make drugs at Walmart, which has the nation’s fourth largest retail pharmacy after CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid. In response to public outcry about opioid addiction, the retail giant has implemented new restrictions which will limit how it will fill opioid prescriptions. Walmart pharmacies will cap acute painkillers to cover up to a maximum of seven days. About 40% of opioid overdose deaths can be traced to prescription opioids.
This has made drugs stores a prime target for policing. In Florida, Monroe County filed a law suit in federal court against several pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma and other drug stores like Walgreens and Walmart for manufacturing and selling opioids. The parking lots of Walmart have become new police hot spots. Police officers ride around in unmarked cars, taking down licenses plates of out of state vehicles, and looking for suspicious behavior. In Knoxville, the opioid crisis is changing how Walmart stores are handling petty theft. The county DA has vowed to handle petty theft cases as felonies which will be subject to fines and prison time—up to 12 years. The Knoxville DA sees this as part of the county’s larger fight against opioid addictionwhich has fueled shoplifting in the area.
Walmart most importantly provides people a space to socialize. Not long before moving to Tennessee, I read an article about the closing of a Walmart store in McDowell County, West Virginia. Its residents were bitter about the loss of access to produce and to badly needed jobs but they were more disheartened about losing the social bonds the retail giant helped to forge. One resident used his frequent trips to Walmart to cope with his wife’s bereavement. “If you were lonely and had nothing to do, you’d go to Walmart to talk to folk. It was a great social network,” he told the Guardian.Other residents spoke about how the store provided a space to meet up with neighbors, chat up strangers and make small talk with the cashiers and greeters. Walmart culture relied heavily on greeters, smiling workers with a distinctive color vest and sunny predisposition. But starting in 2016, Walmart eliminated the greeter position in 1,000 of its stores. Many argued it would put the elderly out of business so Walmart came back with another strategy: “the customer host.”The responsibilities of the host go far beyond that of the greeter to include making cart runs, cleaning up spills and lifting heavy items (up to 25 pounds). Greeters also process returns and issue refunds. The shift from greeter to host has affected mostly older and disabled workers who cannot qualify for the new position.
Across America, stores like Walmart along with what’s left of retail stores and malls are places where friends and family socialize, walk around for exercise, grab coffee and exchange stories. In many towns and cities, shopping was the center of social life prior to the technological rush provided by social media and the internet. While shopping is certainly steeped in alienation and consumerism, the mall in particular was an important institution in the lives of middle-class teenagers from movies like Clueless to Mallrats. The mall was also a place of refuge from the chaos of zombie invasion in Dawn of the Deadand where Cuban guerilla enemies are hunted down by Chuck Norris in Invasion U.S.A.
Yet the mall culture which was the quintessential feature of American social life is today becoming extinct. The golden era of capitalism necessitated the creation of spaces that could soak up investors and help them maximize returns on investment capital. So, between 1970 and 2009, the amount of retail space per square footage increased by 54%.The Great Recession in 2008, however, brought the building of malls to a screeching halt. Between 2007 and 2009, 400 of America’s 2,000 malls closed down. Business gurus warned of a “retail apocalypse” as Amazon rose to popularity and online shopping was predicted to replace brick and mortar stores. Some estimate that by 2022, one in every four malls in America will be closed for good. While many malls across America have closed, others are being repurposed into gyms, churches and medical clinics. For example, when the Hickory Hollow Mall in Antioch, Tennessee was closed, it reopened two years later as a mixed-use space with an ice-skating rink for local professionals to practice and as a satellite campus for Nashville Community College. In other states, malls have been transformed into churches. For example, in 2000, in Grandville Michigan, the Mars Hill Bible Church took over the local mall space and nicknamed it “The Hangar.” In 2010, Southland Christian Church in Kentucky opened its campus on what was previously the Lexington mall.
(Proposed Walmart Town Center in Garland, Texas)
The transformation of malls signals an attempt to reimagine consumer culture during an era of economic stagnation and permanent recession. Many see this as opportunity to rethink the role that retail giants can play in a socialist utopia. In their book, The People’s Republic of Walmart Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski imagine that mega-corporations like Walmart provide an important model for what a centralized planned economy could potentially look like.For the authors, Walmart offers an important glimpse of how mega-corporations, who according to the authors have perfected production and distribution can be used towards more liberatory goals. A socialist Walmart, however, already seems to be in the cards. In recent efforts to shed its unflattering history of destroying local communities and recuperate profits in a climate of heightened competition with companies like Amazon, the megacorporation is redesigning how we understand community. Walmart is moving its locations from the edges of local towns into city centers in an effort to bind its products to customers and community life. Just as community becomes an empty vacuous word, who better than Walmart to revive it. As part of its newest campaign, Walmart has launched “Reimagined Centers” which seek to revitalize old Town Centers and make shopping a community experience. Central to these new town centers are plans to hold a variety of community events, spaces for kids to play, and bike and walking paths. Each Town Center will be unique and cater to the “needs” of the community it’s in. For example, many town centers will have not only restaurants and other traditional shopping outlets but also green spaces, outdoor lounging areas and even housing. Such projects are currently underway in Loveland, Colorado; Bryan, Texas; Tummwater, Washington; and Shelton, Washington.
With these transformations Walmart, a key destination for bargains, will soon be enveloped in some sort of middle-class suburban nightmare where people jog and rent bikes. I guess until then, I will just keep driving to my local Walmart and meet the strangeness of everyday life head on.