While Walmart has returned to its emphasis on rock-bottom prices recently, there are still some product categories where you are better off shopping elsewhere — either because you’re straying beyond Walmart’s core competency or you would be supporting the giant retailer’s bad behavior. Here are four of them.
1. High-End Electronics
Though Walmart’s selection of name-brand electronics is not bad, the company is still focused on value-oriented products in the sub-$1,000 price range. And the sales staff tend not to be experts in the finer points of multimedia interface. So if you want to splurge on a top-of-the-line television or SLR camera — and get the accompanying level of service and accessories — you’ll want to visit a specialty electronics store. Best Buy, for example, has a customer support team (the Geek Squad) capable of explaining why you may need a television with several HDMI ports.
In 2009, Walmart slashed prices aggressively to establish itself as the low-price leader for best-selling books. The store cut the cost of popular novels by authors such as Stephen King by as much as 70 percent, sparking a price war with Amazon. The Walmart/Amazon rivalry translates into incredibly low prices for consumers on some of the most popular book titles. But Walmart’s prices come at a cost, say local business advocates. In the long-run, such deep discounts can drive independent booksellers out of business. And without these stores, consumers will have difficulty finding all but the most well-known authors, says Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a non-profit that advocates for local businesses.
3. Wood Furniture
Despite Walmart’s increased focus on sustainability, the retailer has a long way to go in the furniture category. In 2007 an environmental group published a report tracing furniture from Walmart suppliers to wood illegally logged in protected Russian habitats for Siberian tigers and other wildlife. Several months later, Walmart promised to investigate its suppliers and joined the Global Forest & Trade Network, an organization dedicated to eliminating illegal logging. Environmental activists have applauded Walmart’s promise to purge environmentally rotten wood, but Walmart could take until a self-imposed deadline of 2013 to phase out the products. Until then, consumers can’t be certain that Walmart’s wood furniture comes from well-managed forests. Beyond sourcing concerns, though, the quality of much of Walmart’s furniture just isn’t very good. “Yes, their furniture may be cheap, but if it only lasts a short time, you will spend far more money in the long run,” says Kathy Woodard, a home decorating expert who frequently appears on HGTV.
Walmart is actually the largest seller of jewelry and watches in the country, with about $2.75 billion in sales in 2009, according to National Jeweler, a trade publication. But most of those sales come from lower quality, small-ticket items. “Walmart’s whole focus is to keep prices low,” says Michelle Graff, a senior editor. “When gold is selling for $1,500 an ounce, you’re going to get what you pay for.” At Walmart, that means 10 karat gold jewelry, and salespeople that likely aren’t well-versed in the finer points of cut and clarity.
Besides, asks Jennifer Heebener, a senior editor at JCK Magazine, another industry publication: “What message does it send to your partner if you buy them a ring at the same place where you get discounted toilet paper?” (by Catherine Holahan and Bob Trebilcock)