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The awnings of Walmart

Sadly I had to take the bus to Walmart (four hours round trip on public transportation). The service was horrible, and I had to go back a second time (total, eight hours) but there was no point losing my temper because clearly all the employees, er, associates, as well as their managers, were in the grip of a system that was being run more cheaply than possible. (I waited outside for the bus home next to some storage containers they had parked outside the building, gawd knows why, and heard a big electrical crackle come from one of them just before the bus arrived. Yikes.)

While I was there I took this picture, because it seemed to sum up a lot of my difficulties with the place:

This is, I believe, a "simpler than possible" awning. Rather it's a notional awning, the dead idea of an awning. It's above an area that serves bread, as you see, so I imagine it's meant to convey the feel of a cheery patisserie. I'm not sure which is worse: The attempt to convey the feel, or success (if any) in the conveyance, because that would have meant such a horridly low baseline for inducing the feel. I hate everything about that awning and no, I don't just strongly dislike it:

1) The colors are depressing and horrible. There don't seem to be any primary colors in Walmart's trade dress at all; I would call these dirty pastels, but I'm not enough of a colorist to know. The mentality is that of the client who thinks magenta (process red) is a substitute for red, and makes the switch, because it's cheaper, and anyhow, who would notice? The fluorescent light and the camera are making the colors appear worse than they are, but not a lot worse, believe it.

2) The materials are cheap and too smooth. Particle board, plastic, stamped metal, plexiglass. And somebody's got to clean that plexiglass.

3) The dead idea of an awning is rigid and immovable. Real awnings are mostly fabric, and movable. Even New York street awnings have shape!

4) Look at that nail or screw or whatever it is at top left and right. It looks like they've attached the fake awning to the frame with two screws at the top, and no screws at the bottom. Is the awning glued to the frame? Is it just held in place by gravity?

5) The word "Bread," with its grey color and bland typeface, is just so discouraging. You could put any word up there in grey on the plexiglass and it would come out denatured. "Sex." "Love." "Hate." And so forth. The signage should be in Cyrillic from the former Soviet Union. (The word "Revent" in script on the hood in the back is, therefore, quite subversive. But nobody noticed.)

6) At top left, where the notional awning meets the notional wall, there's a visible gap. Shoddy workmanship, like shoddy design, and shoddy materials.

* * *

The architect Christopher Alexander has a wonderful, though eccentric, book called The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe. In it, he pairs images, and asks which image is more alive (and less dead) than the other.[1] So here's one such pairing. Which awning on which bread store is more alive?

* * *

Walmart's trade dress also reminds me of John Berger's famous essay, "The Suit and the Photograph,"[2] based on this image from the German photographer August Sander's Man of the Twentieth Century (1929 (!)), a typological catalogue of more than six hundred photographs of the German people. This is Peasants going to a dance, Westerwald, 1914 (!!):

Berger comments:

Now make an experiment. Block out the faces ... with a piece of paper, and consider only their clothed bodies.

By no stretch of the imagination can you believe that these bodies belong to the middle or ruling class. They might belong to workers, rather than peasants; but otherwise there is no doubt. Nor is the clue their hands -- as it would be if you could touch them. Then why is their class so apparent?

Is it a question of fashion and the quality of the cloth in their suits? In real life such details would be telling. In a small black and white photograph they are not very evident. Yet the static photograph shows, perhaps more vividly than in life, the fundamental reason why the suits, far from disguising the social class of those who wore them, underlined and emphasized it.

Their suits deform them. Wearing them, they look though they were physically mis-shapen. ... None of their abnormalities is extreme. They do not provoke pity. They are just sufficient to undermine physical dignity. We look at bodies which appear coarse, clumsym brute-like. And incorrigibly so.

Walmart is ugly, and makes the "consumers" who shop there look ugly, because that is what it is designed to do, as we see from the signage. It's as if the Harkonnens had designed the quintessential American retail experience:

How typical of a Harkonnen fief, the Duke thought. Every degradation of the spirit that can be conceived. He took a deep breath, feeling rage tighten his stomach

Of course, I'm putting myself in the mind of a Duke in that quote; my own class bias, and the good luck to have read the book, many times, and to have the art of retaining quotations. My parents would never have dressed like that; they were professors! And as for me, I can still pass….

Working people should have excellent clothes and beautiful places to shop. Why the fuck don't they?

NOTE [1] Maybe not such a crazy idea after all, that things like salt shakers can be more or less alive.

NOTE [2] I had the same sensation returning to the States last year and seeing anew how people dress.

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Submitted by EGrise on

Reminds me of something James Howard Kunstler (who, it must be said, is a crank but stopped clocks and all that) once said, that we're creating "places that are not worth caring about" and "when we have enough of them, we’re gonna have a nation that’s not worth defending."

And the sheer contempt for their customers is evident to anyone willing to look past the veneer of low-low-prices.

Submitted by lambert on

... and we're subsidizing them to destroy local businesses, as David Cay Johnston points out.

They're supposed to be logistical geniuses, but when I look behind the counters, all I see is mess and lack of tools to do the job. Like no telephones, for example. When I was there, I couldn't have gotten customer service to call a cab for me if I'd wanted to. And when I was waiting in line, the reps straightening out, or not being able to straighten out, database screwups was a regular theme. The workers, I have to say, didn't seem unhappy or demoralized, but rather were functioning at a very low level. Nothing was really expected of them, so little was done. And of course, those are the incentives, given the wage structure.

Submitted by Dromaius on

I spent 3 hours on the phone today with Amazon trying to return 2 little items. They kept getting the return wrong. I kept having to call back. I called them rather than doing the return online, because I wanted to save them some money by shipping in one box. No good deed goes unpunished..... I am doing the rest of my shopping at brick and mortar no matter how much it costs.

Amazon = about every way you can think of, maybe worse, because they've somehow managed to not have quite as black of a name as they richly deserve.

I know you know this. However, I've seen good progressives all over the net bragging that they don't shop at Walmart. Instead they use Amazon. LOL.