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"Five axiomatic propositions of Canadian Nationalism vis-a-vis the Americans:

1. Boy, we hate Americans.

2. We really do.

3. Really.

4. I'm not kidding. We really hate them.

5. So how come they never pay us any attention?"

--Will Ferguson, Why I Hate Canadians, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997, p.105.


Monday, February 25, 2002

They're efficient. They help people on a budget. They can't be any good. The New York Times had an interesting article on Sunday about Wal-Mart, which is now the largest company (in terms of sales and employees) in the U.S. Wal-Mart’s success has been built on its relentless efforts to sell at a lower price the same brand-name goods that are available elsewhere (in recent years the chain has also expanded into selling private-label goods). My sense is that Wal-Mart, and its cousins in spirit such as Home Depot, have played an often-overlooked role in checking inflation over the last decade or so – by holding the line on prices and challenging rival retailers to do the same. The NYT article notes that Wal-Mart is now attempting to move upscale, which poses some fascinating challenges and opportunities for the retailer.

You might think that people would generally applaud a chain that historically has brought products to people – often working-class people on tight budgets – at a lower price, hence helping them make ends meet. But then, you wouldn’t be Heather Mallick. Ms. Mallick’s one-note musings on retailing in Canada last Saturday explained, to those of us who are either too stupid or too timid to see it, that:

Here's the hard truth. If Canadian-owned retailing shrivels because of Wal-Mart or Sears, it will be because of the triumph of the American-driven demand for cheapness as the sole criterion of purchase, which many Canadians are brainwashed into praising. Eatons was good. It died because people knew it couldn't live. Zellers likely won't defeat Wal-Mart because it can't sink that low.

Let’s put aside for a moment that Zellers is perhaps the worst discount department store I have had the misfortune to enter. The aisles are squished together, the sales clerks are masters at vanishing into thin air, and the chain has the lamest mascot you ever did see: Zeddy, “a warm and cuddly mascot appealing to both children and adults.” Yes, let’s put that aside.

But before we put it aside, Let’s recall the words of one former Zellers employee, who publicly elaborated on his painful experiences during “My Job as the Zeddy Bear":

But the part of the job that left permanent scars on my psyche was being Zeddy Bear.

For a fee, and about 3 million Club Zed points, customers could get a shabby and decidedly unhappy-looking bear to show up at their young prince or princess's birthday celebrations. Inside the bear, usually, was a very sweaty Zellers employee who hadn't been able to hide from the store managers.

A few things about Zeddy. In the commercials, he can fly and talk. In real life, he can barely walk, as the only way to see out of the costume is via two small eye holes covered in black mesh. These are placed so high on Zeddy's enormous head that the only way to see the little munchkins is to bend his head straight down, which made him look clinically depressed. Countless children would come up to me asking, "Why are you sad, Zeddy?"

So what exaclty does Mallick see in Zellers? It can't be the product selection, because Wal-mart has far more skus and the overlap in products and brands is stunning. It can't be the sales help, because...well, because Wal-mart has at least some competent sales help. And it can't be the prices, because Mallick's angle is precisely that Wal-Mart is Bad Because it's Cheap. So it must be that mascot. Or, to put it another way:

Better selection..........Wal-mart
Better inventory...........Wal-mart
Better sales help.........Wal-mart
Lower Prices...............Wal-mart
Has a mascot..............Zellers

Someday, Ms. Mallick will have to explain this obsession she has with mascots. But of course, the real subtext here is that high culture (read: any culture that is not American) is inversely related to effective business. I am always amused to see this, in its various implicit and explicit forms. Here are two of the more prevalent forms: 1) Americans see film (or art, or books, or theater, or music) as mere commerce, whereas we more refined people value film as an artistic cultural expression. That's why American films do so well commercially, while ours languish in dustbins behind piles of moldy baguettes. 2) Americans place a high value on commerce, whereas, with our finer sensibilities, we devote our time to more worthy pursuits. That's why the U.S. economy continues to rocket along, while we still devote a third of our GDP to making piles of moldy baguettes. Note that the key point is to develop a self-serving explanation as to why the Canadian (or French, or Morroccan, or British) economy can't quite make it -- in fact, the very lack of success becomes prima facie evidence of superior culture.

The second half of Mallick’s column is essentially a paean to having a high disposable income:

I don't shop cheap any more because, if I may quote from the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, "I don't want more choice, I want nicer things.”…My grocery bill is huge now, which is to my advantage, beautiful-lifewise, and makes Loblaws happy. But there have been rumours that Wal-Mart wants to buy in.

My plan now is to shop at Loblaws, asking seductively, "Do you sell organic poultry?" to encourage the troops and build up their war chest so they don't give Wal-Mart a toehold and end up selling Midwestern food -- ultra-cheap, genetically modified pork pucks and beef slurps.

Well, at least this time she didn’t use the term “Heartlander.”
I'm sorry, I thought you were somebody else. From the Arab News: "European pilgrim mistakes Yemeni for antichrist:"

Police said the European, a 20-year-old youth studying at the Islamic University in Madinah, had been following the Yemeni for nearly an hour prior to the dawn prayer. Then he stabbed the Yemeni from behind shouting, “Antichrist, antichrist”.

The Yemeni, in his 40s, was taken to hospital immediately where a team of physicians removed the knife thrust into his back.

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