Thoughts on “My 49 Hours at Wal-Mart”

posted by Mark Dixon on December 20th, 2005

Rumor has it that you can get anything at Wal-Mart. That is one of the many reasons to avoid it. But on the day after Thanksgiving, 2001, I endeavored to submit entirely to the world of Wal-Mart. My intention was to hyper-accept the offers of consumer culture—health, happiness, fulfillment, comfort, etc.—as though they were made in earnest. On the day after Thanksgiving I entered a Super Wal-Mart planning to stay continuously for seventy-two hours or until I was thrown out.

In the book Why We Buy, Paco Underhill states, “Our studies prove that the longer a shopper remains in a store, the more he or she will buy. And the amount of time a shopper spends in a store depends on how comfortable and enjoyable the experience is.” My trip to Wal-Mart was an experiment in absurd compliance with these rules of retail.

While inside, I sought comfort and enjoyment by interacting with the Wal-Mart system. I curated “theme shows” in shopping carts, made epigrams of rearranged merchandise, wrote text with products, observed customers and employees from a mock anthropological perspective, monitored my vital stats on the free blood pressure machine and read Sam Walton’s autobiography “Made in America.” I recorded my work in writing and with a disposable Wal-Mart camera.

I left the store after forty-nine hours because I was never able to find a suitable place to sleep. On my second evening I actually got caught trying to sleep under a rack of clothes. The manager of the camping department approached as I tried to get comfortable. I immediately assumed that I would be escorted to the door or worse. Because of this I responded to her questions plainly and truthfully.

“What are you doing under there?” she asked.

“Hiding.” I said, as I climbed from under the blaze orange hunting suits. At that we both stood there staring at one another in a long, awkward silence. Finally I decided to turn and walk away. I went to the magazine section where I hid for a few hours until her shift was up.

Obviously hiding under a rack of clothes was inappropriate in Wal-Mart. It was probably way more inappropriate than stealing a candy bar. But if I had been caught stuffing a candy bar into my pocket both the employee and I would have known just what to do. “Hiding” had us both stumped. In this situation, “too inappropriate” seems to be a useful term: something a system has not formulated an official response to. Rather than acting against Wal-Mart law I seemed to be acting outside of it. Whether or not Wal-Mart or the department manager would agree with my analysis, it seems to be useful and transferable to other systems.

I chose “an announcement of possibility” as the subtitle of the zine “my 49 hours at wal-mart“, because I felt that the project had demonstrated a loophole. The Wal-Mart I occupied had 104 visible security cameras and untold numbers of employees, yet I was able to live there for two days with no trouble and then leave only because I chose to. For me, this surprising demonstration of free play in the Wal-Mart panopticon is an invocation to take such ideas beyond mart-retail.

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One Comment Leave a comment.

  1. On March 30, 2006 at 08:22 ob1 said:

    I don’t like it, but my family members do, so I am often forced to spend way too much time in there (sometimes over three hours). I’ve often wondered if I would be viewed as a “potential threat” by the eyes in the sky for spending too much time. I guess I was never even close.

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