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At Wal-Mart, satisfaction isn't part of the bargain


Death, taxes, Wal-Mart.

There's no getting around the giant retailer, is there?

Oh, you can choose not to shop there - unlike many small towns across the country, Baltimore has other retail options.

But it's still hard to avoid Wal-Mart, especially now that a federal judge has struck down the Maryland law that would have compelled the company to contribute more to its employees' health care costs.

Fewer than half of Wal-Mart's employees are covered by their company's health insurance. Who do you suppose pays the bill when the rest of them get sick? In Maryland, where hospitals can fold the cost of treating the uninsured into what it charges paying customers, that would be the rest of us.

Maryland lawmakers tried to rectify that, passing - over Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto - a law that would have required the company to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on employee health care. That's what the judge struck down Wednesday.

The law was by no means perfect, and its effect might not have been widespread: Wal-Mart employs about 17,000 Marylanders, and even if every last one of them ended up insured as a result of the law - doubtful - they would still represent just a fraction of the 780,000 people in the state who have no health coverage.

Still, the law would have made a point of forcing a company that has been notoriously stingy with its wages and benefits that to do business in Maryland means meeting a minimum standard.

Somehow, though, all the battles that have been waged against Wal-Mart tend to end unsatisfyingly - and something tells me this one might, too.

Wal-Mart is one of my perverse fascinations - I avoid shopping there, not always successfully, but I find it oddly intriguing to watch it stomp Godzilla-like through the world, crushing anything in its path. (I also love Martha Stewart and the late-1990s New York Yankees, by the way, maybe for the same reason.)

The unions that have tried to organize Wal-Mart workers? The company has barely lost a step maneuvering around them. Most famously, when a group of butchers at a Texas Wal-Mart joined a union, the company responded with a swift slice with its own knife: It simply discontinued selling meat butchered in-store at that - and subsequently other outlets - and instead went with pre-packaged goods.

The anti-sprawl activists? It's a big country - if Wal-Mart is occasionally prevented from opening a store in one burg or another, the upshot is that the residents of those towns just have to drive a little farther to shop at Wal-Mart. According to a recently published book, Charles Fishman's The Wal-Mart Effect, 90 percent of Americans live within 15 miles of a Wal-Mart.

The Waltons of Bentonville, Ark., have won, haven't they?

What depressses me about Wal-Mart is how it seems to have divided the world not so much into the haves and the have-nots, but the have-tos and the don't-have-tos. For many people, there's nowhere else in town to shop, or anywhere as affordable, or to get a job.

Or maybe I'm just being a snob.

"All these malcontents, as I call them, I'm beginning to think of them as elitist," says Kenneth Stone, an Iowa State University economist who has long followed the company. "I don't think they speak for the average person. The local people say, 'We want them.'"

It's easy for me to ignore Wal-Mart most of the time - most of the stuff I would buy there is readily available at any number of grocery stores, pharmacies and elsewhere. I can avoid going there, because it depresses me - the bad lighting, the jumbled shelves, the cavernous space full of stuff that I probably don't need but end up buying because it's so cheap.

But sometimes, I just have to go there, and a recent trip there was as unsatisfying as my Wal-Mart forays tend to be. I needed a new Dustbuster, but there was only one on the shelf - a high-end one that seemed more Dustbuster than I needed. There were several Dirt Devil models, but I wanted to act locally, as consumers are always being encouraged to do, and buy a Dustbuster, made by Maryland-based Black & Decker.

In another store, I might have sought out the manager to ask why he or she doesn't have more models from a company located just up the road. But something about Wal-Mart just defeats me. What you see is what you get, take it or leave it.

So to justify my trip, I picked up something else - a nozzle for a garden hose - and went back to my house, where the dust remains unbusted and I still haven't used that

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