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Christmas Shopping No Bargain If We Exploit Others

Christmas Shopping No Bargain If We Exploit Others

By Mark W. Anderson
November 27, 2004

Everybody loves a bargain, especially during the holiday shopping season.

In fact, that seems to be part of the fun of Christmas: finding that perfect gift for Uncle Fred on sale, or picking something up for little Timmy at half off. Many of us have a lot of folks to buy for, after all, and a limited budget, so paying full price is out of the question.

But for every buck or two we save while trolling the aisles of our local shopping mall or giant retail store, somebody somewhere else is probably picking up the tab. Shopping in the United States, long considered a national pastime, comes with its own hidden costs, especially when we start talking about the mega-retailers like Wal-Mart, Target or Sears.

And just because many of these costs are hidden from the average consumer doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Take wages, for example. One of the key ways to sell a product cheap is to keep costs down, and for most big retailers, that means paying their employees the very least they can.

Retailing giant Wal-Mart is perhaps the most notorious in this regard, paying its 1.3 million employees as much as 25 percent less than the industry average, according to a 2004 study out of the University of California at Berkeley. Women seem to get special treatment, being paid a third less than men and suffering regular discrimination when it comes to training and promotions, as detailed in a new book entitled Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart also regularly forces employees to work off the clock, rarely offers health insurance and has been known to lock employees and contractors alike inside stores during overnight shifts.

How’s that for a holiday bonus?

Even if you don’t work for Wal-Mart or some other retailing behemoth, you can still end up paying for their low prices, particularly in higher taxes and fewer public services.

Many, if not most, of the “big box” stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Target get tax breaks just to open up shop on the edge of town, mostly because politicians believe that bringing any activity and jobs – no matter how low paying – to their town is better than nothing.

The problem is, if you give tax breaks to a corporation that already makes millions or billions in profits, there’s that much less to take care of your community.

Again, Wal-Mart tells us the story all by itself. In a May, 2004 study, Good Jobs First, an economic development advocacy group, determined that the world’s largest retailer received more than $1 billion since 1990 in local and state subsidies for its 3,500 stores around the country, even though it made over $9 billion in profits last year alone.

And then there’s the problem of where the cheap products come from. While it’s a lot of fun to get a pair of running shoes for less than $20 or a brand-new DVD player for under $50, it’s less exciting when you find out that they may have been assembled by workers in Asia making little more than a dollar a day - or prisoners who had no other choice.

For example, it is suspected that a substantial amount of the products stamped “Made in China” and sold here may be the result of prison labor. Still a closed police state, China’s vast prison system is believed to include forced labor camps where inexpensive consumer goods are produced before being shipped to the United States and sold by American retailers.

In 2003, the U.S. bought more than $103 billion in consumer goods from China. Wal-Mart alone imported $12 billion of that, making it almost certain that products made by prisoners found their way onto American shelves.

And beyond the way cheap products affect our pocketbooks is the issue of how they affect our spirits. In many parts of the country, shopping malls and mega-retailers have almost completely replaced public gathering places, turning the town square into a corporate profit center.

In doing so, the brightly-lit Target or Super K-Mart out by the highway has very likely put many of the smaller, independently-owned department stores and general merchandisers out of business, just like the Home Depot or the Lowe’s did to all of the Mom-and-Pop hardware stores that used to line Main Street.

Meanwhile, we see our neighbors not in the post office or city hall, or while window-shopping on the commercial district of our neighborhood, but in the car on the three-lane off ramp leading to the Ikea parking lot. We spend more time and energy talking to the salesman in the appliance department than we do the cop on the beat. And we feel proud of ourselves, and think we’ve accomplished something as a citizen, when we find the best bargain and end up paying less than the other guy.

And we suffer for it, somehow, in ways we may not even be aware of on a day to day basis.

We like to think of the Christmas season as a time where we put aside the cares of the workaday world and practice warmth and fellowship for those around us and mankind as a whole.

But every time we walk into someplace and spend our hard-earned dollars on a cheap product that cut somebody’s wages, took tax dollars away from a classroom or senior citizen’s center, helped support a ruthless, repressive regime or helped keep us from knowing our neighbor a little better, we make a mockery of those ideals we believe we’re celebrating.

In the end, that’s no bargain. No matter how much money we’ve saved ourselves. –


Mark W. Anderson is an independent journalist and writer based in Chicago.
Visit him at

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