The Great Shopping Divide

The worlds of Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, and the values they promote, couldn't be more different.

Back when the world divided neatly between communists and capitalists, public life turned on which creed you subscribed to. Now that everyone's a capitalist, the debate is intramural. It's all about which style of capitalism you prefer, and how you express it through shopping.

Are you a Wal-Mart person, or a Whole Foods person?

If you don't know by now, you might want to check your pulse. Then take this simple test:

1. A few weeks ago, at the very start of the Christmas shopping season, the seemingly invincible Wal-Mart had a shocking stumble and didn't make its expected sales numbers. This news made you:

a) Sad. Wal-Mart is the greatest company of modern times, a boon to the economy. If it's bad for Wal-Mart, it's bad for America.

b) Joyous. Wal-Mart is a cancer spreading across the land. Anything that slows it down should be applauded.

2. Last week, The New York Times reported that Whole Foods Market and several other high-end grocers are taking Manhattan—and the country—by storm, with "things like rare mushrooms, hand-crafted cheeses, expensive tins of tea, and 'heirloom' tomatoes." This development leaves you:

a) Cold. I'll tell you what those effete New Yorkers can do with their shiitakes.

b) Excited. At last, Americans are getting sophisticated about food, and you don't have to go to Paris to find a nice Chabichou du Poitou.

Of course, this is highly simplistic; just another way of dividing the country into two artificial tribes. Plenty of people go to Wal-Mart and other big-box discounters for bargains—and also cruise the likes of Whole Foods for organics and luxury treats.

Still, the emergence of these shopping paradigms is telling, because the two worlds, and the values they promote, couldn't be more different. To travel from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods is to move between truly alternate realities, parallel capitalist universes that have nothing in common except the ultimate goal of making money.

Wal-Mart is the cattle car of shopping: the harsh lighting, the blue smocks, the huge carts bumping into each other among all the artless displays of cheap stuff. But then, the cheap stuff is the point, and you walk out with amazing bargains. Whole Foods stores have the expensively industrial aesthetic of a SoHo loft, the grocery store as stage set, with people in nice loafers quietly studying Asian pears and prices that tend toward the obscene. The food is good—no vile Hostess Cupcakes here—but you're paying for more than food. A Wall Street analyst told The Times that gourmet grocers offer their consumers "the chance to feel good shopping.... They want drama; they want fresh food."

Actually, in both worlds the aesthetic experience dramatically reinforces the economic one. Wal-Mart's cheesy decor is a constant reminder that that you're saving money. If you suddenly happened on a basket of beautifully lit, fresh-baked currant scones, it would be jarring and a bit troubling. But at Whole Foods, such moments are integral to the experience. You see the free platter of Manchego cheese with quince paste—exquisite!—and you're reminded exactly why you're paying the big bucks. This is shopping as a series of intense Proustian moments.

So which is the real America? Watch the media lately, and you'll see the zeitgeist factory trying to sort it all out.

Fortune magazine recently ran a cover piece that offered a rare glimpse into the Walton family's empire, a kissy-poo kind of story that made them out to be quite a heroic bunch. These folks don't live to make money, see, they just want to do good in the world. That doesn't quite explain Wal-Mart's famously hardball business tactics, or its relentless drive for world domination. A PBS Frontline special about Wal-Mart left the opposite impression: Watch out, world—this is one dangerous company.

And CNBC's David Faber offered a three-part special report that fell somewhere between these poles, reporting that Wal-Mart "is a near-perfect example of capitalism," while not ignoring the voluminous dirt on the company's record as an employer, or the way it can disrupt communities. Favorite moment: "Wal-Mart admits locking in workers in some of its stores overnight, saying it was for the employees' safety."

There isn't much dirt-slinging going on about the Whole Foods operation, in part because it's still a relatively small player. The American gourmand sector isn't literally going global the way Wal-Mart is. Because it's new and riding high, and because it serves the tastes of the people who produce magazines and TV shows, the luxe paradigm is currently being strewn with flowers.

John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods, rates a full-page Annie Leibovitz portrait in Vanity Fair's new "Best of the Best" hall of fame, alongside the likes of Jon Stewart, Scarlett Johansson, and Karl Rove. Mackey is shown in his attractive kitchen, barefoot in cargo shorts, looking just like the casually prosperous Americans who throng his stores. The caption says he "runs his 162-store chain the way any hard-nosed businessman would, buying up competitors, fighting unions, pushing the company this year to the brink of the Fortune 500. But no one will deny the real key to Whole Foods' success: no more musty-yeasty-old-hippies-in-hand-knit-wool-socks-health-food-store stink. Praise the Lord and pass the Kashi!"

And watch where you shop, because it's who you are.