Why Walmart? The Store Consumers Hate to Love

Consumers complain on blogs, on shopper forums, in conversation, and even on the company website that Walmart is disorganized and crowded, sells low-quality products and bad produce, attracts questionable clientele, mounts bad lighting, fields rude and unhelpful employees, and is, overall, a place to avoid. But as any reader of the financial press knows, Walmart ranked No. 1 on the Fortune 500 list in 2013. Clearly, lots of someones are shopping at Walmart. Do they take a different view of the Walmart experience? Or do the upsides of shopping there simply outweigh all the downsides?

The bottom line is that Walmart has proven time and again to be one of the most affordable vendors for everything from groceries to home goods to clothing, electronics, and automotive supplies. Walmart beat the competition for affordability in a comparison with Kroger and with Target and Kmart. It's no secret that price is a major lure when choosing where to shop, which goes a long way towards explaining why Walmart is so wildly (oftentimes secretly) popular.

People who admit to frequenting Walmart say they do so regardless of the public darts thrown at the superstore. Anne Brink of Cincinnati, Ohio, shops regularly at Walmart because she can purchase so many different items in one place. With three kids in tow, Brink must use her time wisely, and rather than taking her youngsters to more than one store, she "throws in the towel" and heads for Walmart. She also finds Walmart to be cheaper than the local Kroger, which seals the deal as her top shopping choice. Another mom, Amy Strapp, from Columbus, Ohio, simply asserts that price trumps all. She says if she can get the items on her list for less at Walmart, that's where she'll go.

Walmart also benefits from its ubiquity. With nearly 11,000 stores worldwide, there is a Walmart close at hand to nearly everyone (except, famously, residents of New York City). Stacey Strapp, from Gallipolis, Ohio, says she would prefer not to shop almost exclusively at Walmart, but does so because it is the cheapest store around and open 24/7. She offers a laundry list of gripes about the store, including its disorganization and inconsistency, but out of necessity continues to shop at the retailing behemoth. Rachel Kaschner, of Lewis Center, Ohio, similarly notes that there are times when Walmart is the only available place to shop, as is the case when visiting her hometown. Kaschner adds that the unappealing environment in the store puts her off stopping into Walmart more frequently.

The vast selection of goods is another common reason for shopping at Walmart. Of the several consumers we spoke with, even those who insist they specifically try to stay away admit that the store carries items that can't always be found elsewhere. Cathy Taylor-Meyer, of Columbus, Ohio, says she tries to avoid Walmart because, in her opinion, the produce and meats lack quality and flavor, the local store always seems messy, and the lines are long. Her experience has been that many household items wind up being the same price elsewhere when you shop sales and use coupons. However, Taylor-Meyer still finds herself at Walmart at least several times a year for certain foods and things like large flower pots and cactus potting soil that aren't available at rival big-box outlets. The same goes for Jeri Lugg of Marion, Ohio. She complains about unappealing lighting and the abundance of screaming parents and children, but ends up at Walmart for products that don't show up on other stores' shelves, such as refrigerated cherry turnovers and Smith's chocolate marshmallow ice cream.

Overall, the consumers we interviewed shop at Walmart at one time or another -- some more frequently than others -- regardless whether their assessment of the store is positive or negative. Most consumers, apparently, have decided that saving a few bucks outweighs the turn-offs associated with shopping at Walmart. Money always talks, and knowing that you can find what you need at the time when you can shop prompts legions of consumers to conclude it's worth paying the price of longer checkout lines, bad lighting, lots of background noise, and all the rest.