I’ve been living abroad since 2012. People sometimes ask me what I miss most about America. The answer to that is easy: Walmart.
I’m not kidding. Walmart blows my mind. It’s a monument to human ingenuity. The prices are unbelievably low, the selection is incredible, and each time I visit a Walmart, I am rendered speechless as I wander from gleaming aisle to gleaming aisle.
Currently, I live in Brazil. I’ve also lived in Africa and Europe, and it’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve never seen any store that even comes remotely close to Walmart. I recently needed to travel to America for a family emergency. You can be sure that when I fly back to Brazil, I will be lugging a giant suitcase full of stuff I bought at Walmart.
Walmart always has exactly what I need. For example, I just purchased a pair of plain blue flip flops for my little son for 98 cents. Back in Brazil, we have the iconic flip-flop brand Havaianas. But those are exponentially more expensive and they’re usually branded with some movie or TV show. As my kids are already being “sold to” at every turn, I decided it’s best to leave their flip flops out of it.
Moreover, the point of flip flops for little boys is to be destroyed. So if I can get them cheap and simple, that’s just what the doctor ordered. And less than the price of a candy bar? Wild.
Walmart provides everything I need to buy in one convenient location, which saves me so much time. In other countries, I usually have to go to several different shops to get everything I need. I have three young children. Dragging them through endless small shops all day is not something I’d like to do except as a last resort. I sometimes hire a babysitter just so I can get my shopping done. But, if I lived near a Walmart that wouldn’t be necessary.
Another reason I am dazzled by Walmart is that the products are almost always in stock. How do they manage it? On this past Fourth of July, my family realized we didn’t have everything we needed for our cookout. So we ran over to Walmart and all the staples were there even though we were purchasing everything at the last minute.
Burgers, hotdogs, buns, ingredients for S’mores were all in stock with items to spare. I can’t overstate how exceptional that is. In other countries where I’ve lived, those shelves would be empty.
Walmart gets a lot of hate in popular culture. People complain that their low prices cater to the worst instincts Americans have for overconsumption. No doubt many Americans do own too much stuff. Shows like “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” certainly give that impression. Americans are now needing to pay consultants to help manage the excess stuff they have bought. As problems go, though, that’s a great one to have.
I’ve noticed that commentators who criticize American overconsumption tend to fetishize people in foreign countries who own less stuff. To be honest, that is a ridiculous way of thinking. To begin, it is colonialist because it imposes unrealistic, romanticized stereotypes onto foreigners. These are normal people just like you and me. They are not any better or more virtuous than Americans.
Second, having lived in poorer, still-developing countries, I believe the people there make do with less because they have to, not by choice. If they could, I expect they would likely embrace close to the same levels of American consumption. One of the main factors holding them back is their inefficient or corrupt local governments. Walmart tried to enter to Brazilian market but pulled out in 2018 — largely on account of all of the bureaucracy and excessive red tape.
Moreover, in my experience, the goods typically sold to the poor in these countries are usually very low-quality and unsafe. Even “average” quality items can be obscenely expensive. For example, when I moved to Brazil, I bought a cheap blow dryer to save money. It promptly ripped out a big chunk of my hair.
I was in tears, so my husband got me a new, fancy one that cost five times as much. It works fine, but it’s not any better than the $10 blow dryer I bought at Walmart and used when I lived in America. To be sure, poor people in foreign countries would be better off if they could shop at Walmart.
Some may also object that Walmart hurts the poor because it sources many of its products from low-cost countries like China. There may be some truth to that. Yet it is important to note that stores all over the world rely on many of the same supply chains as Walmart — the main difference is that Walmart manages them far better and with vastly greater efficiency, passing the savings on to the consumer in the form of lower prices. All in all, Walmart provides a shopping experience that genuinely improves people’s lives.
I have to go abroad again soon. I will miss my family and my friends in America. And I am definitely going to miss Walmart.