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Ken C. Erickson (Pacific Ethnography) Revised Version of a Paper Presented at the Invited Session The Legacies and Future Directions of Business Anthropology 110th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Montréal, QC, Canada 19 November 2011
For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it's looking like we have no other choice. —David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years There is a kind of symmetry in following a spiral down as far as it will go. —Chris Kraus, Aliens and Anorexia Here is Bill Simon, current CEO of Walmart USA, speaking at a Goldman Sach's Global Retailer's conference in 2010: You need not go further than one of our stores on midnight at the end of the month. And it’s real interesting to watch, about 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs, and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when electronic — government electronic benefits cards get activated. And then the checkout starts . . . our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher. And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they’ve been waiting for it. Otherwise, we are open 24 hours — come at 5 a.m., come at 7 a.m., come at 10 a.m. But if you are there at midnight, you are there for a reason (Simon 2010).
We may ask Bill, "Gosh, why do you think they need that formula and those diapers and eggs and milk and bread at midnight? He doesn't say. Is it love of LPED (Low Prices
She's a mother all right. A minor lover's quarrel about the clothing selection? Then. yo que soy un poco mas decente en mi compra de ropas. and their money equals their voice. Siempre esta. Casas Bahia. there's Adela. .yo la visito practicamente en diario . though. I'm a little more particular in buying clothes. . necesito otras tiendas. Me. and easy credit. and many Brazilian folks know precisely what kind of mother she is: the kind that offers easy initial credit on less than optimal products and then charges very high interest on the purchase. a big selection. entonces. Arturo. Puede que sea la tienda que yo mas utilizo porque me parece que tiene muy buenos precios. How challenging. hay muchas Walmarts por todas partes. It's always there.Every Day)? Or is it a marriage of convenience between Walmart and her shoppers? I will use feminine pronouns and honorifics for Doña Walmart here. janitor in a parochial school and part-‐time hotel maid who is likewise particular about clothing she 2 . a Spanish-‐speaking Colombian immigrant from Houston. by Brazilian working-‐class people (Cardozo 2011). thus recalling a Brazilian analogue to Walmart called Casas Bahia— low prices. Here is one of Walmart's customers. Corporations may whisper sweet nothings. so I need other stores for that (Erickson 2010). Mother Bahia. . in an ironic twist. is often called Mãe Bahia. It may be the store I visit the most because it seems to have really good prices. Its location is very convenient. Su ubicacion es muy conveniente. I visit just about every day. a Houston Spanish-‐speaking Guatemalan immigrant. they are everywhere. with their cash. And why not personify Walmart? Five out of nine American senior jurists presently agree: corporations are people.
But my question is this: Am I deluded in my affection for conducting ethnography within her walls. durante Christmas tienen los especiales que pueden ordenar y ship to casa. (and again. It gets cruisy at Walmart at night. it starts to sound something like love. here) local painter and printer Adrian has this to say about Doña Walmart .buys for herself (she prefers Kohl's). the trick. They drive local stores out and retail wages down. But every couple of months. she fills very large carton of gifts (two cartons at Christmas): clothing. or in the walls of Casas Bahía or the big-‐box retailers in China where I've done shopping research over the years with my colleagues? Maybe I should long for other retail dance partners. [Gay] guys are cruising at Walmart. for her adult children and grandchildren back in Guatemala. For real. partners who move differently. Or in Palm Springs. housewares. and I'm enchanted by all that (Erickson 2010). where the cards may 3 . Like. you name it. and so does the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW 2009). who whisper fewer white lies. instead of from the mom and pop Hallmark franchise down the street. at Walmart at Christmas they have specials you can order and have shipped to your house. who may be less prone to the engaño. The parking lot contributes to storm water runoff pollution. We know this. nearly all bought at Walmart. Adela is enchanted: Como de Walmart. (Erickson 2011) Who knew? So what's not to love about Walmart? Plenty. (like leading us to buy our greeting cards from her. The lines are too long. todo eso me encanta.
Then we find the twelve pack of Coke under the kitchen table—like lipstick stains on the collar—and we learn how the carton was bought you-‐know-‐where. she is a singer. and by most measures. retail sales. If we claim not to. Doña Walmart Doña Walmart is 9000 stores around the world. eleven percent of all U. Our clients come to us to answer questions about how to sell more of their wares. especially if one attends even obliquely to the assumptions of (and desire for) eternal growth in consumption as the key indicator of organizational (or household or national) wellbeing. She represents. late last evening. she is the world's largest corporation. when seen through the seductive fog of retail romance.be cheaper and in better supply)? Such longings do indeed matter to the clients of the company that I manage. we deny our own amorous encounters. She is the largest non-‐government employer in the US. Difficult questions. the largest in Mexico. indeed. Many of our clients make and sell things at Walmart. when the neighborhood gossips could not catch the culprit in flagrante delicto. That’s what they say. will say they have had no truck with her. To anthropologists working in China. She is known to applied anthropologists for appropriating the values of a mythical by-‐gone America in her annual corporate meetings (Schneider 1998). some people who claim a certain kind of cultural capital.S. 4 . Tough questions. Some folks we interview and with whom we shop. We all know who she is. intoning the revolutionary songs of the danwei (the post-‐revolutionary Chinese workgroup) as she re-‐works them into contemporary organizational operas of Taylorized workplaces with Chinese characteristics (Davies 2007). at this writing.
be said to think [Douglas 1986]) she can overcome the shame that some shoppers feel when they pass through her doors. middle-‐class position of taste and distinction. The Delights So. Here's what I mean. in Doña Walmart’s recent efforts to make herself more attractive to shoppers who might otherwise turn away from her. In November of 2011. In doing so. We discover Doña Walmart has had trouble remembering what corner she is working on. sought to cast her old low-‐price self aside. In so doing. We had done some research illustrating how cultural capital plays a part in any household’s choices of retail dance partners. I think that's why she went through a recent—and failed—national makeover: to attract shoppers whose cultural capital includes an awareness of Doña Walmart’s social position. we find a small delight. Doña Walmart thinks (as institutions may. we were 5 . an awareness of how spending time perusing her low-‐price selection of goodies reflects on their own social standing. During that work. their own descent into something other than a proper. I don't know. our client told us that our fallen heroin's move to Broadway between 37th and 38th was part of an overall plan in which she sought a make-‐over. such prevarication happens often. For some shoppers. where she had hoped to leverage some fashion caché and elevate her level of distinction (Moin 2011). Maybe this was to figure out how to walk in discounted Jimmy Chews instead of her store-‐brand Faded Glory flats. La Doña finally pulled the plug on her apparel division’s move to the garment district of New York. And Doña Walmart seems to know it. indeed.
So. tried to become more appealing to people who only shopped with her late at night. We like Target. That move to New York was just one more piece of the flotsam created by Walmart''s nearly two billion dollar shipwreck called the "Impact Program.told. her sales have been down. what people say about Walmart rarely matches up with what they do. I love that Walmart is flawed. the items on her shelves). one might suppose. when no one was looking. that she tried to become something she cannot be. For nine consecutive quarters. and interested in still enough money at the end of the month to afford the gas to get home after shopping. Doña Walmart had missed the evidence of night-‐time trysts by middle class customers seduced not by the cleanliness of her aisles but by her every day low prices. She cleaned up her stores. Only in the last quarter was there a very slight up-‐tick. she "left millions of dollars on the table" (Briody 2011) when the move failed to produce sales results. And her missteps continue to mount. which her financial reports attribute to 6 . something to eat. who told her (in.' But she had not been watching her customers. flaws are always more interesting—and seductive—than perfection. After all. She stopped focusing on LPED and started doing rollbacks— special offers—instead. Walmart trimmed back her SKUs (that is. After all (the bloggers say) she had been listening to her customers. I find this both interesting and attractive. she reduced the number of stock-‐keeping-‐units. tried to make them more tidy. up to the end of 2011. After all." Beginning in 2009. scientifically designed surveys and focus groups): 'We like tidy stores. She had missed the store visits by people whose primary interest was having something to wear.
dances our ethnographic research." Perhaps 700.reduced shrinkage (a business euphemism for losses due to employee and customer theft) (Walmart 2011). has documented. at this writing. she encouraged him to manipulate inventory numbers to make her sales-‐outlook brighter. they are aware of her problems. Walmart closed twelve stores. has more than two years of experience polishing her star. a round of top-‐management resignations destabilized Walmart's China efforts (Bloomberg News 2011). over the years. There are other dances on Walmart's shiny and contract-‐labor-‐cleaned floors. There is the dance of the floor 7 . Chinese authorities in Chonqing blew the whistle on sales of regular pork falsely labeled (and priced) as "organic. with whom they interact. is said to represent Sam Walton’s star in heaven after his passing. Yet even those gains may be another engaño: One former employee in North Carolina is suing Walmart for wrongful firing. And another misstep: a few weeks ago. but that’s enough for now More than a quarter of one of our client's substantial income comes to them through Doña Walmart's cash registers. (That star between the Wal and the Mart. Chinese police jailed a few employees. not yet been decided (Portillo 2010). There are other examples. The case has. most stores have replaced it with a sort of sunburst-‐modern symbol).000 US dollars worth of pork were implicated. Our client's executive sales team says that no one at a high level at Walmart. he says. still found on many storefronts. So our client's management tells us they are in the curious position of helping Walmart re-‐learn her retail steps. after.
and her ethnographers. pushing them to re-‐design packages and displays at the very last minute. But along with all this delight. It is delightful to watch the powerful slip up. But another misguided notion comes from spending anthropological time in and around Walmart and offers. her contractors. or the relatively weak assert their power over a not-‐quite omnipotent empress. and all the makeup in her cosmetic section can't hide it. but change the rhythm half way through the waltz. not surprisingly. "uh huh. is hardly fierce enough. Walmart is capable of screwing up. another delusional example. And anthropologists who work at retail should know what they are. (In fact. even by the singular calculus of economic value. making our clients miss their steps." Her performance in the United States (and even in China by some measures) may be evidence that this retail queen. fierce though she may be. her managers. The Delusions The first delusion is simple. by accepting the 8 . I think. her store associates. come delusions. We are deluded (and campy) if we say. these floor managers generally know very well what’s happening in their departments). This is our deluded notion of consumption itself. Arkansas-‐based Walmart corporate managers who try to call the tunes. We run the risk of falling into the trap that Doña Walmart has set for herself. that girl is just way too fierce to get her big self in serious trouble. And there are the Bentonville. because the manager claims to know better than anyone else possibly could how people really shop within local the space she controls.manager who won't re-‐set the display the way our clients want them to.
because the savings cannot really be calculated. and to whom it happens. or when we follow people home from Walmart to understand what people buy there. the one that Doña Walmart would have us believe makes our lives better simply by saving us money. Lover’s Question Some of us have a lover's quarrel with Doña Walmart. only because they have made a kind of rational economic choice based on weighing the costs and benefits associated with shopping with her. and with anthropologists who use the words consumer and consumption to describe what happens.notion that shoppers are in the store. We try not to use those two terms with clients. the reality of externalized costs makes the savings claim nonsense. in part because the full costs of low prices are externalized. By using the word “consumers” for the people who buy from Doña Walmart. When hidden. so the choices people make to shop with her do not and cannot reflect an accurate understanding of cost. are also deluded because in doing so we limit our view of what shoppers are doing in the store. and only mythically rational marketplace. when we spend time in Walmart. We know this cannot be the case. when our team speaks or when we write. They cannot be part of anyone’s economic calculus. but are unknown and immeasurable. And if we understand shoppers in Walmart as consumers. one that signals the power of the monetized. and not some other store. and why. are born by all of us. because I think those terms steer us away from 9 . Lover's Quarrel. every day. maximizing. I do not think my colleagues and I are studying consumers and consumption. we are buying into an especially pernicious delusion.
10 . It is hard to do the anthropology of buying and selling without using the words consumers or consumption. Shared. But if we have learned anything by being enchanted by this retail coquette. ethnographic work—our own and that of many other anthropologists—can't avoid seeing much of shopping as a kind of caring for others. Indeed. the work often called the anthropology of consumption has helped expand our understanding of what people do in a contemporary monetized economy. and use. as something much different than simply getting and spending. and buy. Displayed. The things we buy from Doña Walmart are only rarely just consumed. if we have learned anything about what happens to the goodies we buy from her—and what happens to us—we've learned that there is plenty more going on than buying things at low prices. Talked about. a useful one. This is not to say that anthropological musings about how people shop. macho "business" of production. We do not and should not see shopping and buying and sharing as less interesting nor less valuable than the hefty. and share. They are gifted. Likewise. That's a good perspective. and an under-‐ theorized one. and then consuming them. We no longer see what mothers do in a retail store as unworthy of serious scholarly attention nor do we discount the practices that surround use of the goodies that come home in a mother's shopping bag as merely the stuff of household re-‐production. Broken. Enjoyed. and dispose of goods has been irrelevant or unhelpful.what's really going on inside the world of Walmart. But it is not impossible and I think we must keep trying. Messed up. Fought over. in our quarrelsome way.
and celebrated in slogans like Low Prices Every Day. at least) is to bring out the native points of view. what about those local sport-‐team jerseys that Walmart trumpets as evidence of local managers acting like "merchants" instead of acting like managers? Those are meant to be visible to others. Adela). nearly all of them.. to find the language of shoppers and shopping. mask the complex realities of shopping with words like "consumption" and "consumer" and. possibly. no one ever really shops alone (Miller 1998 and passim).d. And when folks are done with them. as anthropologist Daniel Miller so often reminds us. Graeber 2011). The Goodwill. n.Recycled after use and sent to Santiago. Beyond gifts. Those jerseys go to the Goodwill (and. But I do know those cartons of discounted Coke that we find hiding in the kitchen are not just for individual use because. (Or by the carton-‐load in their unopened plastic packaging. by our friend. 11 . Not fed into the destructive fires of consumption. I'm taking some of this thinking from an article by David Graeber who exhorts us to be careful about how we talk and write about these phenomena (Graeber. Corporations. whose institutional values. a neighborhood in Barrio Patronato. Our anthropological job (one of them. Chile by the container-‐load for resale in Recoleta. Think of it. to be worn with delight over and over while watching a football games with your neighbors. to Guatemala. they don't toss them out. on to Recoleta in Barrio Patronato in Santiago). recreated in recurrent missteps. We do not know (because we have only just begun to ask) how much of what is bought in Walmart is implicated in household and neighborhood and global systems of gifting. And. I know that Adela's purchases at Walmart are gift purchases.
We bought from the bin instead of buying the higher-‐priced boxed set in the Walmart electronics department under the LPED sign." Real non-‐corporate persons don't use that word when they talk about that kind of shopping. Words like consumer and consumption do." So do too many academics.for that matter. it is Doña Walmart's own point of view. Note that I'm not arguing that economic calculus isn't part of what happens when we are caressed by temptation's scented hand—and I know that my colleagues who use terms like consumers and consumption don't argue that. even when calling out the inherent contradictions of an entire economic system. "low prices.89 from a "bin program." That's the local language. the so-‐called emic perspective we are after and a better place to start understanding how people buy and use things than to begin by calling it "consumption. And it isn't as though David Graeber is the only person who refuses to call what happens when a video comes home "consumption. frankly. I know because people like my former partner Adrian and I fooled Doña Walmart before she pulled one of her engaños on us. either). pricier on a per-‐disc basis anyhow. either." (The boxed set offer was more than we wanted to spend and. We bought the individual Harry Potter re-‐issue DVDs at $3. engañoso point of view. But if I take that video home and burn it up (consume it) I'll deserve at least a funny 12 ." a stand-‐alone cardboard bin sent in by the video manufacturer or merchandise (and without the LPED logo found on Walmart's own displays). He calls it "watching a video. Adrian most certainly does not call watching a video "consuming" a video. come from a point of view but by itself it is a deluded. or that kind of product use. It does not represent the shoppers' points of view. indeed.
We should use their language. gifts. as Graeber has reminded us. a burning up. of loss and grief and struggle. where this word comes from: a disease. come at 10 a. which inform our business anthropology story? Remember those mothers in Bill's stores at midnight—can't their words inform our anthropological understandings better than the words that Doña Walmart uses? Will calling those women in his store at midnight "consumers" help Bill and his banker audience give voice to the unspoken reasons why those women don't "come at 5 a. Certainly these things. to discover the shopper's language. these video games. and calling shopping shopping and not consumption... come at 7 a.m. Let us remember. But I still love working in Walmart and it sounds like a lover's question. 13 . One would suppose that anthropologists should focus on the meanings that real Walmart shoppers give to what they do. I am hired. is it the world of love and pleasure. using this word to designate personhood or buying and selling things is a recent. a kind of tubercular illness. movies. but is it consumption that shapes what is going on? Or. of sharing or greed. and odd. Why don't we see this? What has seduced us to do otherwise? Consumption is the word Walmart uses."? I doubt it. which means calling a shopper a shopper and not a consumer. and team jerseys.m.m. are implicated in how we make or re-‐make or contest meanings in our lives.look. invention (Graeber 2011). as a business anthropologist.
David 2011 Rethinking Apparel Again. Ken C. "Consumption. Mary 1986 How Institutions Think. New York: Melville House.com/retail-news/mass-offprice/walmart-to-close-new-york-buying-office-5335140 14 . Pacific Ethnography: Los Angeles. Moin. Bloomberg News 2011 Walmart Reviewing Management at China Stores after Pork Probe. Epson Brazil printer User Research. 2010 Fieldnotes: Latino Shoppers Project for Global Apparel Manufacturer. Women's Wear Daily. 2011. Author's Files.000 Years.com/news/2011-‐10-‐25/wal-‐ mart-‐reviewing-‐china-‐store-‐management-‐after-‐pork-‐mislabeling-‐incidents." Unpublished manuscript. Women's Intimates Project for a Global Apparel Manufacturer. Kraus. Smart Art Press: New York. Graeber. Pacific Ethnography: Los Angeles. David 2011 Debt: The First 5.bloomberg. Los Angeles: Pacific Ethnography. Erickson. Accessed as pdf from wwd.Y. Pacific Ethnography: Los Angeles. October 24. NY: Syracuse University Press. Davies. Works Cited Briody. Author's Files. —— n. Syracuse.d. October 26. Wal-‐Mart Shuts N. 2007 Wal-‐Mao: The Discipline of Corporate Culture and Studying Success at Wal-‐Mart China. Office.html Cardozo. 58:1-‐27. —— 2011 Fieldnotes: Women's Intimates Project for Global Apparel Manufacturer. Elizabeth 2011 Interview Notes with Sales Executive. —— 2011 "Consumption. Sara Azevedo 2011 Team Debriefing Notes. 2011. The China Journal. Chris 2000 Aliens and Anorexia." Current Anthropology 52(4). Douglas. David J. Accessed at http://www. Author's files.
2009. Partners Announce New Agenda Challenging Walmart to Change Practices for the Sake of the American Economy. much discussed on the Internet.zhtml?c=112761&p=irol-‐ EventDetails&EventId=3354725 Schneider. Mr. Simon.charlotteobserver. Inc. Ithaca. Charlotte Observer November 18. 2010. (NYSE:WMT). Ely 2010 Ex-‐manager Alleges Bias in Walmart Suit. 2011 at http://www. 2011. available online at http://www. Mary Jo 1998 The Wal-‐Mart Annual Meeting: From Small-‐Town America to a Global Corporate Culture. 15 .html.org/press_room/index.Miller. NY: Cornell University Press. Walmart: Bentonville.ufcw.cfm?pressReleaseID6. is available online at http://investors. Presentation at Goldman Sachs Seventeenth Annual Global Retailing Conference. Portillo. Walmart 2011 Financial Report. Bill 2010 Wal-‐mart Stores. Accessed November 11. Simon's presentation.com/2010/12/22/1929065/former-‐wal-‐mart-‐ manager-‐says-‐chain. September 1. UFCW Press Release.walmartstores. AK. September 15. Daniel 1998 A Theory of Shopping.com/phoenix. United Food and Commercial Worker's Union 2009 UFCW. Human Organization 57(3):292-‐299.
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