Italy Postscript – WalMart Culture Shock

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

From the market to WalMart

While in Rome I purchased three extra cards for my digital camera. The one was a 4 GB Sandisk that turned out to be invaluable and got me through the rest of the trip. The others were two Sandisk 1 GB cards. The vendor didn’t have the 2 or 4 GB card I wanted (I preferred to have 2 or 4 GB cards instead of switching out smaller ones). I figured that if I didn’t use the 1 GB cards, I could easily exchange them in the States for a 2 GB card, plus or minus the cost difference (which would probably be a few dollars since I was purchasing them in Euros).

In theory an exchange sounds easy, but it turned out to be its own little quest. First I tried Office Depot. They attempted to help me but the UPC wouldn’t come up in their system, even though they had an identical item on the shelves. Having no luck there, and being in close proximity to Wal-Mart, I thought I would try them since their “no questions asked” return policy is legendary.

The fact that I was willing to even drive near a Wal-Mart could probably be attributed to shaking off the jet lag from our trip. What readers may not know is that we boycotted Wal-Mart in 2004 after the Bloomsburg location (before they moved to Buckhorn) refused to develop promo photos of me and Bulu. They were photos that they had already developed before – photos that I held the rights to and had paid Marlin Wagner to shoot. Prior to that point there were already a list of reasons to stop shopping there, but the insanity of their one-track thinking and poor customer service just settled it. So I had not even entered a Wal-Mart parking lot in four years.

Yet, I figured if I was going to get anyone to do this exchange – without a receipt – it would probably be them. And besides, I wasn’t *buying* anything, so my own personal boycott could remain intact. The lunacy of my plan hit me the moment I walked in and was accosted by the elderly greeter with a UPC scan gun.

“Welcome to Wal-Mart! Do you have a return?” he asked.

“Yes.” I handed him the items and he scanned them. I looked up briefly to see the warehouse ceiling, the endless rows of low priced merchandise, and knew I didn’t belong here.

“Well, it’s not coming up in here, but this gun may not be updated. I’ll give you a sticker and you can go to the service desk,” he said.

With my trusty sticker, I walked to the service desk, the size of the place still overwhelming me. I had seen huge structures only a week before in Rome – structures with permanence, history and meaning, and *this* was freaking me out. I got to the service desk and explained what I was trying to do.

“Sure, leave these here, and go back to Electronics and select the item you want to exchange,” she said.

It was then that I realized I had no real bearing on where the Electronics dept was. My mental Wal-Mart blueprint had been overwritten years ago, and this was the new bigger and scarier Buckhorn store that I had not even seen before. Using instinct and stealth to avoid the smiley faces, I finally found the dept and tried to locate my item. The rack where they should have been was empty, indicating they were probably out of stock. A woman at the electronics desk, seeing my disappointment after coming all this way into the belly of the beast, tried to help. She confirmed that they were indeed out of stock. They had Sony cards, but I knew that an exchange for a different brand was going to be crossing the line – too much for their inventory control to handle.

Dodging soccer moms and summer help, I high-tailed it back to the service desk. Having returned a different way from whence I came, at one moment I became disoriented and trapped in the book section.

“They don’t have any Sandisk 2 GB cards.” I said, disappointed.

“Well, that’s OK, because I tried to scan these and they are not coming up in our inventory. So without a receipt, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said.

I grabbed my items, thanked her and made for the parking lot, vowing never to return to Wal-Mart ever again, even to attempt sticking them with a return. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.

A week later, and with similar drama, I exchanged the cards at Staples, where I do most of my office supply shopping. There were identical products on the shelves, but the Italian UPCs must not match the US ones. It took 20 minutes while the cashier rang it up three different ways, finally getting the manager to put it through. I didn’t give them a hard time, but I didn’t see why this had to be so difficult. I ended up with a $15 credit that I’d spend there anyway.

Afterward, I reflected on the culture shock – within my own country – of that trip to Wal-Mart. How foreign and grotesque it seemed. How everything there has a UPC and if the number doesn’t match, you are out of luck. How out of place I felt. How antithetical it was to everything I had witnessed in Italy. Even in Naples I did not feel the same panic. It was a sobering contrast.

Within eight hours I would be on the road to Knoxville, TN to experience another, more pleasant, piece of America. We avoided the Wal-Mart, had locally-grown organic food, saw locally-owned shops, and a great Tom Waits concert. This was the America I was happy to return to.


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.