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Wal-Mart Country vs. Starbucks Nation

Where does America’s true fault line run?

December 2, 2004

Where does America's true fault line run?

They are ubiquitous. They define modern retailing in modern America. They both rank at, or very near, the top of lists of the best-run businesses in the nation.

And you can find them both almost anywhere in the United States. So it is no surprise that Wal-Mart and Starbucks have become the larger-than-life symbols — read: the very incarnations — of two radically different Americas.

Wal-Mart nation supposedly reveres President George W. Bush, while every Starbucks coffee sipper in the country is assumed to have voted for Senator John Kerry.

It is not literally true of course — such wild and sweeping over-generalizations never are. But it is an enticing thought and a powerful image.

One poll reportedly found that 70% of people living within a mile of a Wal-Mart voted for President Bush in the November 2, 2004, U.S. election — while 60% of those living within a mile of a Starbucks voted for his Democratic challenger.

There is no way to know for sure whether those voting patterns would hold on a larger basis.

And as ardent advocates of both Wal-Mart and Starbucks endlessly point out, Wal-Mart is as ubiquitous and popular in Connecticut as it is in Wyoming. By the same token, you can sip a good Starbucks cappuccino in rural Georgia as easily as you can in midtown Manhattan.

However, for all their parallels in business practices, expansion, financing, franchising and management, the nature of Wal-Mart’s service and focus could not be more different from Starbucks.

Wal-Mart sells cheap essentials to the U.S. working and middle classes, while Starbucks sells modest caffeine treats to the U.S. middle and upper classes.

Wal-Mart is in the business of attracting purchases from basic household budgets, while Starbucks is all about pampering its customers into splashing out just another three or four bucks in surplus disposable income for its tasty treats.

It is no surprise therefore that the brand images the two corporations display — while wildly different from their underlying economic realities — are perfectly geared to the very different markets they relentlessly target.

Wal-Mart imports billions of dollars of cheaply made products from China every year, no doubt further undermining the weak and shrinking U.S. industrial base. But its image is that of being a warm, cozy, down-at-home marketplace for 'Heartland Jill and Jack.'

You might by now drive a Honda or a Toyota, but Wal-Mart will work overtime to make you feel that the whole nation still rolls around in Chevrolets or Ford pickups.

And make no bones about it, Starbucks is every bit as hardheaded and as focused on the bottom line as Wal-Mart. But its specialty is making its customers feel a little bit special. Starbucks aims for a very different kind of intimacy from Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart, for its part, wants you to imagine that you are living in value-driven, small-town America, where down-to-earth people like yourself go about their everyday lives.

Starbucks, on the other hand, wants you to believe you are in a sophisticated club or restaurant where only you and the Nobel Prize winner for molecular biology at the next table drink that particular sugar-free, vanilla, extra-foam latte.

Seen from this perspective, the division of Republicans and Democrats, 'red' America vs. 'blue' America, makes vastly more symbolic sense. The election returns have made sure of that.

The division of America between 'red' and 'blue,' heartland and high tech, patriotic and internationalist, is not just some fancy myth cooked up by stereotyping reporters. It rests on the considered decisions recorded November 2, 2004, by 120 million Americans.

The great red heartland is indeed Wal-Mart Land. It is a nation where an overwhelming majority of voters — especially white working-class ones — do not care if they are running up the U.S. trade deficit by buying Chinese-built merchandise. Wal-Mart Land is penny-wise — but dollar-foolish.

Starbucks inhabitants are the opposite. Starbucks Nation socio-economically is far more likely to be professional and upper middle class.

These Americans are therefore far more likely to worry about the trade deficit and America's standing in the world, while running up their personal credit cards and indulging in their morning and afternoon espressos.

Wal-Mart is colonizing the American heartland for the interests of huge multinational corporations and far-off rival economies.

Starbucks, meanwhile, stokes professional egos and specializes in making minor functionaries enjoy the delusion for a few precious minutes every day that they drive Porsches or wear Versace dresses.

Wal-Mart reflects the stunning uniformity of so much of America’s great continental vastness, while Starbucks imports wherever it goes the desperate quest of America’s East and West Coast strivers to be part of a wider, sophisticated, global world.

In the 2004 election, the American people — by a relatively narrow, but still clear and decisive margin — voiced their preference for the myths and aspirations of Wal-Mart over those of Starbucks.

In some ways, this might appear to be inevitable and admirable, even reassuring. After all, a good cup of java is not as essential as the bare necessities of life. In reality, this makes sense as well: Shopping at Wal-Mart is about being cost-effective with your own household budget.

It is about going for what you need as cheaply as you can get it — and not bothering to ask questions about the way un-unionized labor at the store is treated or how many Americans lost their jobs to China.

In this sense, shopping at Wal-Mart is about doing well for the family — while the needs of the nation are neglected.

In contrast, sipping coffee at Starbucks is ultimately about individual psychological and emotional health. It is about taking a few minutes off to stroke the frazzled nerves and the wounded ego.

Starbucks is not about family — it is about the individual. And it is not about satisfying physical needs, but emotional ones.

The inhabitants of Starbucks Nation learned in no uncertain terms that Wal-Mart Land still rules. It is only fitting that Starbucks was founded in Seattle.

The East and West Coasts, coupled with Illinois, represented the bedrock of support for the Democrats, just as they easily reflect the aspirations and image of Starbucks.

But for the rest of America, Wal-Mart and its verities still define reality — and let no one forget it.