I told my daughter I was going to check out Sam's Club for this column, and she showed me a YouTube video, Harry Potter and the Dark Lord Waldemart, in which the evil Lord Waldemart shuts down every shop in Diagon Alley by selling cheap wands and potions at his own store.
This is not what you would call good press, but if bad press didn't hurt the Rockefellers at the cash register, why should it hurt the Waltons?
Well, for one thing, Sam Walton was selling his goods directly to the public in their hometowns and making a big deal of his small-town roots. He was not sitting off in New York relying on a massive international monopoly to make people take his products, like it or not. He was one of us.
So when the hometown boy's Wal-Mart and Sam's Club megastores undersold every shop on the square in the county seat and drove down wages across rural areas already depopulated by the death of the family farm, why were the only people upset some egg-head liberals in the city?
Because you can't beat the prices.
Sam's Club, located just off Interstate 40 at Gallaher View Road, undersells the Bearden Kroger $31.08 to $42.23 on our standard grocery shopping trip. Because this is happening in the suburbs, not the country, the effects on the community are minimal. Businesses are not sucked dry up and down Kingston Pike; Sam's is not about to depopulate West Knoxville.
Maybe the West Knoxville customers feel remorse about exploiting the Sam's "associates" running the cash registers and stocking the shelves for $10 an hour (the average wage for Sam's nationwide). If they do, they're dealing with it pretty well. The SUVs pour into the parking lot at midday in the middle of the week, and parking spots are hard to find on the weekends.
It kind of reminds you of the day the Yippies dumped money into the trading pit at the New York Stock Exchange to see if the stockbrokers would fight for it. In West Knoxville, the power of a bargain is apparently irresistible, even if there's plenty of money in the bank.
There are a couple of catches. Only members are allowed into Sam's and the basic membership costs $40 a year. You have to figure whether you're going to buy enough to save $40 in the next 12 months to make it worth your while.
You also have to decide whether you're willing to be photographed while you shop and to submit to an inspection of the goods in your cart as you leave the store. Unlike other exclusive clubs, this one counts the silver when the party breaks up.
And the store smells like fermented plastic, a naugahyde processing plant maybe; my eyes were burning from the fumes.
But no one has real problems with any of that stuff. The place is a clean, pleasant, enormous controlled warehouse. There are plenty of non-grocery discounted goods. Lines are long at the check-out, but associates routinely tote up the contents of people's carts at the back of the line to speed up the process.
Really, the biggest catch I could see was the sheer volume of goods people end up buying. The day I visited, signs in the lobby offered customers a list of products—Tyson boneless chicken breasts, Quaker State motor oil, Gatorade, among others—available by the truckload.
I'm assuming buyers of these shipments are other businesses ("We Are in Business for Small Business," signs proclaim), but many of what looked like ordinary household shoppers were walking out of the store with pick-up-sized truckloads of groceries piled on flat carts. They were spending $600 to save some money.
You can buy 32-ounce Utz Cheese Ball Barrels at Sam's. Three-quart Margarita mix buckets. Four-and-a-half pound jars of cole slaw. Ninety-six-count packages of Tootsie Rolls.
Some extract of vanilla, enough to feed Godzilla, as Allan Sherman sang it decades ago. He was singing about Green Stamps, yesterday's racket to get people to buy more food than they need. Today's racket is called Sam's Club.