Take heart—we still have Wal-Mart


May 23, 2002, midnight | By Stephen Wertheim | 18 years, 8 months ago

Attention K-mart shoppers: the blue light special has dimmed, but bizarre discounts shine on


K-mart's recent declaration of bankruptcy has left me, along with countless other discount shoppers, searching for answers.

"Was it that I decided against the pair of boots made for two right feet? Should I have waited in line a fifth hour to buy three-dollar underwear? What did I do wrong?"

Indeed, in what surely qualifies as a national tragedy, K-mart has decided to close 284 stores, leaving in their stead huge decaying buildings devoid of maintenance, much like the stores when they were in full operation.

But regardless of whether K-mart can pull through such calamities, I realize its glory has run out. I have to turn somewhere else, somewhere comparable in cheap prices and shoddy manufacturing—somewhere, preferably, with a name ending in "mart."

My destination: Wal-Mart. Shopping at Wal-Mart is, anyway, foremost in our civic duties as Americans. Wal-Mart is an integral part of this country. If you live in America, you have been to Wal-Mart. You must have been to Wal-Mart. I think they're requiring it for the citizenship test now. If you can't name the top five discounted items of the week, you can't be an American.

I'm walking down the aisles of this store, and I figure that Wal-Mart must, unlike K-mart, be a tightly run company, because the price of every single item has been calculated down to the most precise, random cent. A cordless drill kit is $47.37. An electric skillet, $39.56. Want an outdoor fireplace? You're in luck, because it happens to be on sale for the low price of $84.88.

Eighty-four dollars and 88 cents. Who is coming up with these figures? How does one even begin to arrive at such a number? "Well, $84.89 just seems like a rip-off, and with $84.87 we'll never make a profit. Yeah, $84.88. That's the one."

I think the Wal-Mart people do it intentionally. They don't want you to be able to calculate your bill inside your head while you're walking through the store. Because you can literally go up and down those aisles forever, finding new and exciting products every time.

You're scratching your chin: "Ah ha! Pruning shears with a built-in GPS tracking system. I could probably use those somehow . . . for something. What could I use GPS pruning shears for? I don't know. I wonder if I could use them with the Palm Pilot screwdriver I'm getting. How much does that cost, anyway? Huh. I'd better just buy the GPS pruning shears."

The place is full of these weird things. It is, in fact, full of everything, and it isn't even one of those Supercenters they've now constructed. I cannot conceive of how massive a Supercenter must be. I mean, if you've ever been in a regular Wal-Mart, you've got to wonder, How is that not a Supercenter? What brand of cheese spray do they not carry?

I am convinced you could wander through the store and survive perfectly from age seven to the end of your life. It's got everything a human being needs to survive, and more: the restaurant at the entrance, the gun counter for self-defense, the clothes, the bathrooms, the televisions. The Supercenter stays open 24 hours. You think they close for petty reasons like holidays? Santa Claus could stroll right through the sliding doors: "Can you direct me to the toy section?"

Ten minutes later, he's dashing through electronics, scratching his chin.

"The digital camera power saw is $43.29, the tube wrench telescope is $56.74—how much does this come to?"

And you'd never hear from him again.



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Stephen Wertheim. Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Wertheim is deeply committed to reporting, even when it conflicts with such essential life activities as food consumption, sleep and viewership of Seinfeld reruns. In addition to getting carried away with writing and playing violin, Stephen thoroughly enjoys visiting and photographing spots around … More »

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