This is an excellent piece of reporting by Ed Pilkington at the Guardian: What Happened When Walmart Left.
Mostly avoiding the cringe-inducing turns of phrase intended as color — but effectively serving to caricaturize residents — in pieces about poor, rural life in America, the article details what happened in McDowell County, West Virginia, when a Walmart supercenter arrived and then abruptly left a decade later.
The devastation the departure — for reasons of "financial performance as well as strategic alignment with long-term plans," according to a spokeswoman for Walmart, a corporation that made $485.9 billion in total revenue the year they closed the store — is vast and has affected people's lives in ways that those of us who live in different sorts of communities may not have considered, underlining the importance of listening to people tell their own stories, as well as the importance of journalists and news outlets who allow them the space to do so.
It's not just jobs that Walmart, which had become the area's biggest employer, took with it when it left: It took convenient shopping, affordable fresh food, spillover business for local restaurants (where shoppers ate) and a hotel (where employees lived), the social component of the giant retailer serving as a hub that connected the community, the "waste" ("close to 200,000 lb of meat, dairy, pies, and bread") that the retailer gave to the local food pantry, and the tax revenue it paid into the community:
The town of Kimball in which the supercenter is located used to receive $145,000 a year in taxes from Walmart, and when that went it had to cut back its workforce and put all remaining staff on a four-day week.The closest Walmart is now over an hour away, with very little option for both former employees and shoppers who became dependent on their local store, entirely by Walmart's design.
The county government also lost $68,000 in taxes, most of which went to schools, and all its staff were given a 10% pay cut. "All Walmart was interested in was how many millions of dollars they made, they weren't interested in helping the community," says McDowell County commissioner Gordon Lambert. "When they didn't make the profit they wanted, they left."
And, although the word automation is never used in the article, that is certainly one of the considerations the voraciously greedy retailer is making in its calculations as it decides on hundreds of similar closings across the country.
When you combine the county's economic malaise with Walmart's increasingly ferocious battle against Amazon for dominance over online retailing, you can see why outsized physical presences could seem surplus to requirements. "There has been a wave of closings across the US, most acutely in small towns and rural communities that have had heavy population loss," said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University who is an authority on Walmart's local impact.Walmart's model was to position itself as the provider of everything that people needed, under one roof. Get your tractor tires, your baby's diapers, your new running shoes, and your chicken for dinner all in one place!
On 15 January 2016, those winds of change swept across the country with a fury. Walmart announced that it was closing 269 stores worldwide, 154 of them in the US. Of those, 14 were supercenters, the gargantuan "big boxes" that have become the familiar face of the company since the first opened in Missouri in 1988.
It was a model at which they were extremely successful, driving countless independent businesses and smaller retail chains out of business, and replacing lots of jobs with livable wages and benefits with exploitative jobs that lacked both. They insinuated themselves into communities they ruined, with lots of big promises that came at steep costs.
And now, after obliging people in many communities to become highly dependent on them as an economic, cultural, and social center of the community, they are pulling up sticks with zero compunction.
It's hard to find the words to convey the profundity of my odium for the Walton family, or the depth of my sorrow for the people they've so cavalierly fucked over, first by their roughshod arrival and then by their inglorious retreat.