Nothing imitation about crabbiness over lost Walmart seafood counter

Friday, September 18, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:09 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 18, 2009

Walmart committed a cardinal sin this month. The store stopped carrying my preferred imitation crab meat.

Let me explain.

Walmart, or rather Walmart Supercenter, in honor of its expanded grocery department, made a customer out of me on the strength of its seafood counter. Whether salmon or shrimp, fresh fish could always be had on the cheap. My favorite was the imitation crab meat, the cold stuff derived from Alaska pollock and often found at salad bars. It’s tasty and loaded with protein. I snack on it all day.

But as of September, the Walmart Supercenter's seafood counter disappeared. No warning; no notice. Even the in-house customer service associate I spoke with didn’t realize the counter was gone until I pointed it out. In its place now stands a row of bulk frozen foods and no imitation crab meat.

Most maddening was the fact that no one at the store could give me a straight answer on why the seafood counter got canned.

“I think that’s happening at all the Walmarts,” said one employee.

Yes, but why?

“That’s just the direction they’re going in,” said another.

But what direction is that?

Sure enough, a few phone calls revealed that all three Walmart Supercenters in Columbia are now without fresh seafood. No doubt the restructuring ties in to Project Impact, Walmart's latest gimmick in its quest for global dominance. The vision: cleaner and less cluttered stores, pleasant service and items stacked in the places your instincts tell you they should be. Fast. Friendly. Clean.

According to retail analysts, Walmart also is hyping certain goods like generic prescription drugs and art supplies in hopes of taking out competitors still standing in the recession, like Kmart, Rite Aid, Michael’s and Toys R Us. 

So goes progress; so goes the seafood counter.

For the record, I am not a Walmart hater. Washington-based organizations such as Wake Up Walmart as well as documentary films already take the retail giant to task. Alleged offenses include failing to provide competitive wages and health-care benefits, and decimating entire counties in the heartland by wiping out small businesses.

My personal experience with Walmart, I’ll admit, tilts toward the negative. While reporting in a small town, Walmart moved in and shrewdly purchased ads in the local newspaper. When I covered the store opening, my editors informed me that I couldn’t print any grumblings from employers who feared for their livelihoods because Walmart was now one of our advertisers. 

Next, the Walmart manager I was supposed to interview didn’t show up or bother to tell me that he had someplace else to be during that time. Even more irksome was the insistence of an associate that I couldn’t sit on a motorized shopping cart for the 20 minutes I was kept waiting because the carts were “for customers.” Mind you, there were no customers since the store hadn’t yet opened to the public.

But there you have the corporate ethos. Rules are rules. No mercy. No exceptions. Once planet earth is conquered, start mapping out Jupiter’s profit margins.    

To its credit, Walmart has made mild concessions in recent years: the earth-toned makeover, the green campaign via compact fluorescent light bulbs, and a revamped clothing department where 13-year-olds might find something they would actually wear on their first day of school.

I understand why people shop at Walmart, especially in tough times. I spend about $60 a week on groceries. Walmart might save me $10, but shopping there always takes an hour longer than I planned, thanks to parking, long lines and the struggle to locate that one must-have goodie. The 10 bucks I save is inevitably canceled out by the fact that my time is worth $10 an hour. 

Back to the seafood counter. The closest Gerbes doesn’t have one. Hy-Vee and Schnucks each do, but they’re nowhere near my home in north Columbia. 

And then a friend turned me on to Patricia’s Foods. Small and easy to navigate. The nicest employees around. Free mini-coffees for customers. And yes, a seafood counter. I discussed fish-fry methods with the assistant for five minutes — the same length of time it took for the store to win me over.

Memo to Walmart: Just because you’re on top doesn’t mean you can’t show some humanity. I know you earned $400 billion in sales last year, according to The Associated Press, but day-to-day interaction with real human beings still counts for something. Nor does it sit well knowing you likely downsized the elderly associate who used to serve me catfish nuggets, all for a dime’s worth of profit you don’t need.

I’ll end with a quote: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

The speaker? Sam Walton.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU and produces the radio show Global Journalist.

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