A few months ago my wife walked into my office and vented about the automated checkout line at our local Walmart in Lancaster, California.  When they first installed the automated checkout machines a couple years ago, customers had the option of using either cash or credit/debit cards.  We could use coupons. We could also get cash back. 

            But that day my wife attempted to use coupons, something she’d done numerous times.  But that day, the slot for coupons was taped over.  A handwritten sign announced “no coupons.”  That joined the months’ old handwritten sign that explained “no cash” could be used for purchases at the machines—which cohabitated with the “no cash back” sign.  The handwritten signs and taped over slots contradict the options still available on the LCD screens, since the machines had not been reprogrammed to reflect their new limitations.

            Out of the eight automated tellers, only four were “functioning,” even in their now very limited capacities.  It had been months since all of them were available at once.

            Our Walmart used to have greeters at the door.  When the store first opened they were friendly and helpful.  After a year or two, the greeters had become just one old person sitting in a chair waving. Now even he is gone.  

There used to be associates in uniform who could help you find stuff.  Now finding an employee is nearly impossible and when you do manage to find one, nine times out of ten they turn away and scurry off if they notice you looking at them.  I long ago stopped buying ink for my printer at Walmart because they keep the ink locked in glass cabinets.  Finding someone to open the cabinets to get the ink takes fifteen minutes or more, since no one seems to have a key and their claim that they “will find someone” who does just means that they are going to hide from you until you finally give up and leave.

            The store has difficulty keeping its shelves stocked.  And I’m not talking about exotic items.  I’m talking about tomatoes, potatoes, hamburger meat, bread, soup, shampoo, and conditioner.  Shelves will remain empty for days and weeks at a time.

            My wife and I have repeatedly complained to the store manager.  We’ve posted photos of the empty shelves on the local store’s Facebook page.  The last time I tried calling the manager I got put on hold for fifteen minutes—not counting the three interruptions from various people picking up the phone and asking me if I was on hold for “the radio” or “hardware.”  When the manager finally came on the line, she made excuses like a politician.  And nothing changes.  Ever.  In the weeks and months that have passed with repeated complaints nothing has improved. In fact things have simply deteriorated.

            Why do my wife and I bother visiting such a horrible store?  In fact, we generally don’t anymore.  The inconvenience of driving further and paying more is outweighing the inconvenience and aggravation of frequenting a merchant that no longer provides reasonable service.  Some people have a political axe to grind in their criticisms of Walmart.  I just find my local store fails as a store.  Its management appears to be incompetent and unconcerned with customer service.          

I believe that if what I’ve seen at my local Walmart is happening in Walmarts elsewhere (which seems likely since the corporate office also ignores all my complaints) that the corporation will not endure.   Someone is going to eat their lunch.   It wouldn’t be hard. And that’s the beauty of competition and open markets. 

This is assuming, of course, that Walmart doesn’t get the government to pass laws to block competitors.  Something that unfortunately happens far too often. 

For instance, car dealers are trying to make it difficult for the electric car company Tesla to sell their cars directly to the public. Regulations have been created in some states that now prohibit the sale of automobiles except through dealerships.  One can understand the motivation of these car dealers: they don’t want to be driven out of business. Unfortunately, such laws do not benefit the consumer in any way. They make a mockery of the concept of free enterprise.  Of course, this isn’t new. Similar barriers already exist to prevent competition in taxi services, cable television, and trash collection.

            Likewise, Senator Dick Shelby of Alabama—a Republican who would no doubt argue for the wonders of competition and free enterprise—last year attempted to insert language into the Senate’s Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill that would have effectively prevented any company but Boeing from being able to offer commercial crew rocket launch services to the government.  That Boeing is an important manufacturer in his state—and is fearful of having to compete with SpaceX—couldn’t possibly have anything to do with it.

            Nevertheless—despite legislative roadblocks created by established businesses— incompetence, lousy products, and worse service eventually lead entrepreneurs to find ways of circumventing protectionist rules and snatching away disgruntled customers.

Sooner or later, unless they radically change how they are currently doing business, Walmart will find itself overtaken by someone who does a better job.  Amazon did not become dominant in the book market because they are evil, but because they offered a better service than the now defunct Borders and fading Barnes and Noble. Circuit City died because of poor management and poor service. Best Buy might follow them if they aren’t careful. But new companies will arise to dance on their graves.

            If they don’t change, Walmart is likely to go the same way as other companies who thought that they were too big to fail, who imagined their customers would keep coming to them no matter what.  They will join other fading giants who didn’t think they needed to keep on trying to do a good job.