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Wal-Mart Sells Manure!

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Bonita body-slammed my azalea. She couldn't get the handheld barcode scanner to work, so she flipped the seven-gallon monster on its side, crushing its delicate branches with a sickening crunch and scattering dirt all over the floor.

"No!" another woman in the checkout line and I had yelled in unison as she tilted it toward the floor. But Bonita was oblivious to our cries for mercy as she ran the plant over the scanner again and again, trying to get the price to register on her cash register.

It wasn't the first time that week that someone I know was traumatized at Wal-Mart. The store is developing a decent garden center, but getting their products past Bonita, the checkout woman, is a challenge in itself.

Take the manure incident, for instance. Last week, my friend Tammy attempted to buy several of the bags of manure clearly visible on pallets outside the garden center. When she got to the checkout line, Bonita insisted that they didn't have any manure. Tammy, who pulled her car up beside the manure, had double-checked with the outside garden guy. They had manure. She got back in line hoping to pay for a few bags and have him load it in. Nope, no manure, Bonita insisted. Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker, asking her to move her car so that a delivery truck could come through.

"That must be the manure!" Bonita said.

Tammy gave up, stomping out of the store in frustration. But one thing was certain. With the impending demise of K-mart, its competition, Wal-Mart, is rapidly going to hell. I would know. I spend a lot of time there and I've never seen anything quite like it. They run the place like a Soviet-era bread line.

The only way to get anything out of Wal-Mart in under an hour is to steal it, and many people do. The one person in the place who appears to give a damn about this is the guy who simultaneously runs the pet department, the Tupperware section and home electronics, areas of the store that collectively seem to span about half a square mile. I asked him for help one day because I was buying 40-gallon storage bins, and after all the ones on the lower, reachable rows had sold out, leaving bare shelves, no one had bothered to move all the new ones down from the top shelves so customers could get to them. The situation was compounded by the fact that someone had put the unreachable bins on sale, driving customers to risk a climb up six shelves to pull them down. Halfway up, I decided it wasn't worth spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair and went to get help.

I waited while he sifted through an aquarium fish kill guaranteed to give a PETA activist a heart attack, attempting to net a live fish through a cloud of dead ones. Customers who needed help crowded around him, waiting their turn. After he shimmied up the shelves after my bin, their bracing supports quivering precariously beneath his weight -- maybe they don't use safety ladders at the Wal-Mart -- he flagged down a large blonde manager.

"People are stealing stuff right and left," he told the manager, "right off the shelves," but the guy didn't seem to care. The manager grunted, then grumbled at him for something else he was supposed to do but hadn't gotten to. Later, when I realized there was a crack in my storage bin and attempted to return it, the same guy put me through 20 minutes of bureaucracy at the return desk, all the while giving me dubious looks, as if I were trying to get away with something.

"I'm pretty sure the guy cracked it when he dropped it from the top shelf," I tried to explain. "It fell 10 feet and it bounced when it hit, but I didn't want to ask him to crawl up there again because I was afraid the shelves would fall down. Maybe you guys should move your merchandise down to the bottom shelves."

He clearly wasn't buying my story, but he processed me anyway.

Like many other Wal-Marts I've been in, the Wal-Mart on Eastway Drive is so seriously understaffed that it is typical to find seven to 10 customers in any given checkout line -- and about half the check-out lines closed at any given time. Yet at the same time, men from far-flung nations who would set off all the alarms at an airport security check hang out by the doors of the garden center and can be found in other out of the way corners. Since none of them speak English, it's difficult to discern what purpose they were hired to serve, but they don't seem to know where anything is and they don't run the registers. Like the greeters at the entrance of the store, they mostly hang out and wave at the people passing through, their employee placards boasting Middle Eastern sounding names.

Maybe I'm paranoid, but I think the al-Qaida network is flourishing in the garden center at Wal-Mart. It hasn't always been this way. The place used to be better run, and you could get out in under half an hour. But ever since January 22, when K-mart filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy that calls for laying off more than 22,000 employees and closing 284 stores, the decline I've seen at the two Wal-Marts I regularly patronize has been marked. For now, the K-mart at Crown Point is the only one in the Charlotte region to close its doors. But with only one superstore left in the southeast quadrant of the city -- there's one at the Arboretum -- the effects of the lack of competition are plain.

Vicious and ruthless though that competition may sometimes be when jobs are slashed and prices undercut to keep stores afloat, the effects of the lack of competition are equally ugly. Corporate cats get fat and greedy, cutting back on service to jack up profits. Customers with nowhere else to go for affordable prices get sent to the end of the line.

And no one cares whether Bonita gets her manure straight or not.

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