When my husband and I moved to the suburbs of Westchester in 2005, we had to start buying all the odds and ends that homeownership requires. Gardening tools, chairs for the deck, lightbulbs, shelf liners, etc. So we asked our next-door neighbors where we could find the closest Walmart. The look of horror that came over their faces could not have surprised us more. "God forbid," said the elementary school teacher as her husband (also a teacher) nodded. She mentioned a few of the problems she had with Walmart, which mostly boiled down to the fact that it was very big and undermined small businesses. And then she recommended we try the Target a few miles away.
The difference between the two obviously had nothing to do with the size of the store or their impact on small businesses. It was just a matter of branding. Target had clearly become the big-box store of a certain class. Or people who aspired to be in a certain class.
We had actually lived in New York City during the beginnings of the big box revolution and were looking forward to finally paying less for household needs. But we had missed all of anti-big box attitudes. Or really, all of the anti-Walmart attitudes that had developed in the interim. And what was clear from this conversation was that Walmart was just tacky. Or low-class. Or something like that. It was strange hearing from these two educated, but by no means wealthy, individuals about how Walmart was just beneath them.
I say all this because Walmart has launched an ad campaign that seems to push back against this attitude. In an ad called "Meet Real Walmart Shoppers," viewers are introduced to a teacher, an accountant, and a mechanical engineer. They explain that they are using the money they save at Walmart to invest in things like college education for their kids. I have no idea whether this appeal to a more middle to upper-middle class shopper will work. Presumably many in that demographic have bought into the media portrayal of Walmart as a corporate bad guy, out to exploit employees. But for those who simply associate Walmart with a lower class of shopper, perhaps this will help them.
A writer at Slate speculates that Walmart is actually doing worse as the economy gets better.
So perhaps this is image burnishing is more necessary now than before.
The other ads in the campaign, though, are less explicit appeals to a higher economic class of shopper and more of an explanation of how Walmart works and why you should feel good about supporting them. So instead of advertising low prices or quality goods, they explain how Walmart has developed the kind of logistics that provide goods more efficiently to customers. Another ad describes the trajectory of a Walmart employee who is enrolling in college and who plans to continue working for Walmart in the future, perhaps as a manager. Maybe all of these appeals will ease the consciences of shoppers in higher income brackets.
But if wealthy professionals really want to feel better about shopping at Walmart, they should find comfort in the fact that poorer people can afford much more thanks to Walmart's lower prices. It may not have the cache of Target, but some things are more important.