On Returning to Wal-Mart after a 4-Year Absence


Until a few months ago, the last time I visited a Wal-Mart store was more than four years ago. There are no Wal-Marts in Africa (yet), nor are there any in central Seattle where I live now.

Last Christmas, however, I received a gift that I didn’t really have a use for. Attached to the gift was the original store receipt from Wal-Mart, so I decided to break my four-year unofficial boycott of America’s low-price leader.

I should say first that I haven’t really harbored any long-standing resentment against Wal-Mart. I think they could certainly do a lot better in the employee relations department, but I don’t think Wal-Mart is the Evil Consumer Goods Villain or anything.

My objections to visiting a Wal-Mart store are mostly based on the fact that Wal-Mart just isn’t my style. I’m pro-small business, and it’s clear that Wal-Mart has done more than its share of putting a lot of small retailers out of business. I also can’t stand the crowds that usually shop there.

But I also respect innovation and efficiency, and Wal-Mart surely didn’t become the big-box behemoth it is now without some degree of both. In this spirit of checking out this culture of productivity, I decided to give it a fair chance and end the four-year boycott. I also needed to return my gift.

My visit to Wal-Mart store #2690 in America’s heartland was the most stressful and mind-boggling retail experience I’ve had since, well, maybe four years ago when I was last at a Wal-Mart.

Pretty much everything that could go wrong did. Even though I had the original receipt and the item was unopened, I was hassled to no end about the return. At first I was told that Wal-Mart did not accept returns for any reason. (I’m not making this up.) Then I was told that the $37 item could only be refunded to the original credit card. Since it was a gift for me and I don’t buy my own gifts, that didn’t work. On and on it went.

The Customer Service Manager who had been called over finally agreed to let me make an exchange. I asked for a gift card because I was running late by this point, and with the gift card I could also shop online at—a much more appealing prospect than wandering through the aisles dodging soccer moms and runaway children. Of course, asking for the gift card proved futile: the card system had been down all day.

(I could dwell on how odd it is that Wal-Mart successfully sells hundreds of millions of dollars in gift cards before Christmas, but after Christmas when people actually want to use them, the system no longer works. But that would be a digression.)

Thus I was sent to forage throughout the store for my choice of replacement items that would total up to $37.15. I headed back to Electronics and Cameras, where I quickly located two things that would work for me: a $17 memory card and a $20 Nintendo Wii points card. Both of these items were kept behind separate locked cases, so I walked over to find an employee.

I found two of them, chatting to each other about what they each got for Christmas. After it became apparent that they weren’t planning to end their personal conversation to help me, I politely spoke up and asked for help. One of them looked over with visable annoyance. “Just a minute,” he said, leaving me standing there all alone. Always low prices, often low service, I thought.

The unfriendly Wal-Mart guy finally walked over and got me the memory card, but not the Wii card. “For that,” he said, “You’ll have to go to electronics. I don’t work in that department.”

I looked back at the desk where he had just come from. It was directly next to a big Electronics sign, but no matter. By this time I was just ready to move on. Fine. Whatever.

My second Wal-Mart guy wasn’t exactly unfriendly, just bored. He ambled slowly over to the case and fished out the card after straightening up a bunch of other items while I looked on maddeningly. I held out my hand for the card, but he shook his head.

“Nope,” he said. “You have to pay for that here.” I explained that I had a return and needed to bring it to the Customer Service desk at the front. After considering this for a while, Bill from Electronics finally decided to walk me up to the front of the stores which my Wii points card in hand.

My new friend Bill took what seemed to be the longest possible path back up to the service desk. By this time I had summoned all my positive thinking skills in an attempt to see the good side of this experience instead of the stressful side.

I made a quick thankfulness list in my head:

  • I am thankful that people care for me enough to give me gifts
  • I am thankful that I will soon have a new memory card for my camera and a Wii points card for my video game system
  • I am thankful that I don’t have to work at a place like this. God knows that if I did, I certainly wouldn’t feel very motivated to help customers either.
  • I am thankful that I could go four whole years without ever entering a Wal-Mart. I think I’d like to try that again, starting right now.

The return process took more than 40 minutes—the better part of an hour to return a $37 item. Maybe stuff like this only happens to me, but I doubt it. I suspect that this is par for the course at Wal-Mart, because their focus is on pricing strategies rather than service-oriented strategies. I’m glad it works for them, but that’s certainly not the way most small businesses succeed.

I should make the disclaimer that there are probably lots of great Wal-Mart “associates” out there in the big-box world who really do strive to serve customers well. The fact that they can do that in spite of being paid $7 an hour and being denied overtime and health benefits is a testimony to their character, not the values of Wal-Mart. You guys, if you ever happen to read this, are not the problem.

As long as I have anything to do with it, I won’t be back at Wal-Mart for as long as possible. Instead, I’ll stick to Target, or even better, Internet shopping. I have a lot more to be thankful for when I can just get online.


Image: Carol

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    • randomperson says:

      I don’t get the hate for wally world. Target around here is more expensive except for various loss leaders.

      I never have had a serious problem in any of the Wally World stores; but then I am poor and am hate to the crappy service/hight prices from those delightful mom & pop stores that rich people seem to gush about. Maybe they send their servents to those stores, I dunno why someone thinks it is great to pay 50% more for a item because the store is small.

      The stores I goto (in OK land) don’t have rude help (they have walked me to items, etc.), no major trash in messy isles (I have seen sometimes the odd item discarded by a shopper in the wrong asle), slow returns, or any hassle problem.

      My biggest complaint is that they no longer have hand baskets and only have carts. I complained and the manager-type said sorry and then when she saw I was not happy, explained that they were gone for two reasons; one they were a pain to keep organized and two people bought more with the carts. That sort of honesty suprized me and actually satisfied me.

      Anyway, babbling. Like the blog so far.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for your comments! Glad to hear your experience at WM has been different than mine.

    • pinayhekmi says:

      I used to go to Wally world all the time because we are a family on a budget. That is, until I got pregnant and couldn’t STAND THE LONG WAIT AND CROWDS there. We started going to Target where I’ve been a lot more satisfied with the lines, the crowds, the cleanliness. I’m a Target convert.

    • Reese says:

      This part in your post both cracked me up (for its timing in the midst of your story) and inspired me:
      “I made a quick thankfulness list in my head…”

      Walmart stresses me out to no good end. The only ones I’ll go to anymore are those open 24 hours, when I’m in the mood for a 2am shopping experience. otherwise, the crowds, the poor service that you cited, the general depressing atmosphere is just too much.

      I understand and empathize with a family that uses Walmart to help save cash. I’ve been there, too. But like your reader pinayhekmi, Target is much more preferred. In my hometown of MIchigan, we also have Meijer, which has lovely service and selection.

      Generally there comes a point where ‘always low prices’ can only get you so far. However, American’s current economic conditions are likely to continue to keep Walmart doing well for a while. If/when the economy upturns, they may find themselves in a brand crisis for subjugating all else to price wars. A brand that’s based on low prices can only sustain loyalty for so long.

    • Mad Jayhawk says:

      Someone wrote “STAND THE LONG WAIT AND CROWDS there.” There are reasons why there are long waits and big crowds at Wal-mart and not at Target if you think about it a little. No one in their right mind shops at Target.

      Target went along with the Lets-Stomp-Out-Christmas politically correct madness a few years back. You even had a hard time finding a Christmas card that said the words Christmas on it. They get a huge portion of their sales at Christmas and want to stomp it out? How dumb is that?

      Their greeting card racks usually have 4-5 disrespectful cards you can send to all the idiotic haters in your crowd and they promote, with good shelf space, books by lets-hate-someone-today authors.

      At least in Wal-mart you just buy what you need without worrying about making a political statement with your purchase. I shop in Wal-mart because they have good selection, clean stores, and decent prices. I shop in small independent stores when they offer the same thing. I do not shop at places that play political games with their merchandise and donations.

    • JeffSz says:

      Low prices or not, I don’t spend my money at Wal-Mart because I believe many of their low prices are a direct result of bullying and ripping off suppliers.

      Just One Example: “Yeah, we’ll take forty million of them whirly gig things.”

      Months later: “Oh, how much did we say we’d pay for those? Oh dear, that’s just too much. We’ll give you… half of what we promised. Or you can find someone else to buy 40,000,000 whirly gig things… that’s up to you.” *Evil Chuckle*

    • Mad Jayhawk says:

      Couple of comments:
      Wal-Mart usually, not always, has the best prices. It is well-stocked. Whether you encounter crowds of people there depends on when you shop there. There are crowds at Wal-Marts for a reason. If it weren’t for Wal-Marts companies like Target, Safeway, etc would double their prices overnight. Don’t believe that? Shop in a community that keeps Wal-Mart out while hypocritically allowing other big box stores in. If it weren’t for Wal-Mart millions of lower income families would not have a place to get low cost products they use everyday thus making them even poorer. Wal-Mart ‘intimidates’ (as if its suppliers had no clue about how Wal-mart buyers operate) its suppliers FOR US as well as for their bottom line. I, for one, appreciate that. Wal-Mart is constantly looking for ways to reduce costs which are passed on to the consumer, ME, and to help their profit margins. Wal-Mart helps the communities that they live in by providing jobs, paying taxes, and working with community organizations. Wal-Mart is not perfect but it is a good company that makes our lives better. Do not believe all the union BS you read. Unions are the ones spreading the anti-Wal-Mart BS.

    • Sandy Mejia says:

      Wow, you really me make me laugh out loud here Chris!!!
      Am sorry, but your sad and frustrating story about your day in Wal Mart, it’s so funny! I guess, if u have shared this story with your friends, they laugh a lot too!

      The best thing of all this story, is how u brought something good from all those bad things that were around you, the positive thinking, and the thankful list. That just encourages me to do the same thing whenever I am in the middle of a terrible situation (this is life, and situations like that will be there all the time!). Here is where the idea of ATTITUDE makes sense, the world might be falling apart, but, even though it’s all about the attitude you have toward that, that will impact your life for good or ..not so good!

      Thanks Chris!!

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