Regularly at Walmart, I’ll want to buy onions, but the onion bin is empty. Or a pouch (Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!) of salmon. There’s a space on the shelf, maybe an empty cardboard box where the salmon used to be, but there’s no salmon. Or gherkins, or oyster crackers, or hot dog buns. The stuff is in the store, but it’s on the pallet back in the back. The shelves look like the Moscow Central Grocery Collective might have looked in 1982. In Soviet Russia you could slip some money to the clerk, and she’d sell you some of the salmon hidden under the counter. In Walmart, there are no clerks.
In Communist Russia, the central planners set the price of salmon below its market price, so alternate mechanisms developed for distributing salmon. Maybe fish was rationed by hassle — the salmon cost twenty kopecks plus two hours in line, or twenty kopecks plus a bribe for the clerk. Or maybe you bought your salmon from a guy who stole it from the cannery.
In America today, it’s completely different. To keep costs down (Thanks, Obamacare!), Walmart has thinned out their supply chain until they have too few people working too few hours to keep the shelves stocked, and there are long lines to check out. They have, in effect, set the price of salmon below what it costs. But this is America! Here, we don’t wait for hours or bribe the clerks (there are no clerks; that’s the point!) Here in America, we buy something else, or we make a scene. We stand in the aisle and holler “Where’s the salmon!” or “Customer need assistance!” I mean, one would rather politely ask a clerk for help, but like I said there are no clerks.
People could shop somewhere else, but circumstances are the same there. Mom and Pop’s closed because they couldn’t compete with Walmart prices. Ritzy Organic’s prices are too high for someone on disability or working part time at, wait for it, Walmart! where their hours just got cut. Before the current food price inflation (which of course is not really happening), I thought the retail business model of the future might be membership. Customers would pay a flat monthly fee for whatever they wanted to carry out of the warehouse. Now, I don’t know. Maybe we need federal food insurance.
UPDATE 28 March 2013: more here with links.