‘Honey, could you run over to Walmart and pick up some Honey Nut Cheerios, some OJ, and a couple anal plugs?’
Walmart has been selling sex toys for a while, mostly online but also in its stores. Now ‘America’s store’ is upping the ante. The Behemoth from Bentonville has contracted a small boutique manufacturer, Massachusetts-based Clio, to supply a range of high-tech sex toys, produced with 3D printing technology, for sale in almost all Walmart stores.
Walmart got into the sex toy business late, but has dived decisively down that rabbit hole since acquiring the ‘hip’ e-commerce site, Jet.com, in 2016. And so today Walmart hawks travel-size dildos and vibrating penis rings in its stores, along with two-percent milk, Jiffy Gold Yellow Cake Mix, Hatchimals Hatchibabies, Dickies Men’s 6-Pocket (and 5-Pocket) Regular Fit Men’s Jeans, Disney backpacks, Elmer’s Glue, Miracle-Gro Potting Mix, and Mossberg 12-gauge Shotguns. What would Sam Walton say?
Just to be clear, I’m no knee-jerk Walmart basher. Over the years I’ve written favorably about the company in academic journals, and taken the ‘pro’-Walmart position in community programs on the company. I like to shop at Walmart, and in a sense the company runs in my veins. In 1985, my late father was hired at age 60 as an ‘associate’ when Walmart opened its first Wisconsin store (#802) in Monroe. He stayed with the company for 10 years before retiring. While there, he unloaded trucks, stacked shelves, did some janitorial work, and in his last few years served on a small crew that was locked in the store — from evening closing until morning opening — stripping and waxing floors. He enjoyed his time there, and respected Walmart’s culture and the savvy way the company operated.
My beef with Walmart derives largely from the fact that by moving into sex toys, it’s deviating sharply from its traditional culture and perceived values. Sure, there is a large and swelling market for ‘adult’ products out there, and sure, Walmart’s ‘Everyday Low Prices’ strategy could well make the company the place to get penis rings. But is that the kind of positioning the company desires? Sam Walton, like his hero J.C. Penney, was a hard-driving business man, but, were Sam still alive, I can’t see him selling the Mighty Mousette Waterproof Bullet Vibrator in his stores, even though it is rechargeable. Let others fill that niche.
It’s not like there are no examples of companies that have remained true to their values and succeeded. Exhibit A, of course, is Chick-fil-A, which became the largest chicken restaurant in the US without deviating from founder S. Truett Cathy’s ‘closed Sundays’ policy — a policy, by the way, to which Walton’s business idol J.C. Penney adhered as well.
Walmart has tried hard of late to shed its red state/flyover country image by becoming a huge purveyor of organic foods, by greening its supply chain, and by raising wages significantly. However laudable in their own right, such moves were intended in part to disarm progressive critics, and lubricate the company’s expansion out of its traditional strongholds, rural and small-town America and a working-class and middle-class customer base, so it could penetrate suburbs and cities, and blue states. But Walmart will never seem hip, let alone ‘woke’ to progressives, and it risks much in straying too far from its traditional markets. Instead, it would do well to, as Peters and Waterman famously put it in In Search of Excellence, ‘stick to the knitting’: stay with the business that it knows.
Most adults like sex, and many buy sex toys. But as that good ole boy Ludwig Mies van der Rohe used to say, ‘Less is more.’ At least sometimes. Ceding the sex-toy market to adult ‘fantasy’ stores such as Adam & Eve, to Amazon, and to blue state faves like Target won’t kill Walmart. Indeed, it might even make it great again.
Peter A. Coclanis is a member of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.