Testing the State of the Economy while Shopping

Walmart Pasta Shelf
Notice how Walmart employees have pushed boxes forward to hide empty spaces behind them.

Today was a driving day, and I made quite a few stops on a big circuit that took me to the interstate, skirting a ritzy suburb of a liberal city, and then to a bunch of my rural stops. My first stop was a doctor’s office. On the way home visited Walmart, Lowes, Tractor Supply, a large pawn shop known for selling guns that I have always wanted to visit, and the feed mill where I bought three months’ worth of chicken feed.

The chicken feed was $17 for 50 pounds. That’s $2.25 more than I paid on May 1, an increase of almost 16 percent. Still, it’s a good buy compared to $22.39 at Tractor Supply and $22.50 at my local general store. I saved about $40, more than paying for the gas I burned on the trip.

Everywhere else, prices were also up. Here is my assessment of the shopping trip and what it says about the state of our economy.

A Fancy Walmart

This was the fanciest Walmart I had ever been to. It looked more like a high-end grocery store with a huge meat section. I kept looking around to make sure I hadn’t wandered into a Target by mistake. It was bigger and also organized differently. All the Walmart’s I’ve been to are similar, although sometimes they run left to right and other times right to left. This store still had the garden center on one end and the groceries on the other, but everything in between was different. They had more rows of food and more rows of household goods, like laundry detergent and paper products. As a result, I had a hard time finding pet food and the pharmacy.

Not only was it larger, the store was well stocked compared to the local stores I had been to. However, some of that was for appearance’s sake. There was a great deal of fronting going on. I imagined a crew of workers going through each night and pulling canned and boxes forward. There were also some weird layouts that made me think they were filling blanks with items like Igloo coolers to keep from having an empty shelf in the middle of housewares. The most obvious outages were in the lunch meat section.

Milk was less than $3 a gallon and the basic eggs were $2.98 per dozen, which is pretty good these days. They had store-brand noodles for 82 cents per pound, which is darn good. The meat aisle wasn’t bad, and they had far more variety of chili than my local store. I did note prices are continuing to rise. The big jumps seem to be behind us and things are increasing three to six percent instead of twenty to thirty.

I live in a state that is not wealthy, and I live in one of the state’s counties with a high poverty rate. (This is the Appalachians, after all.) I guess it makes sense that a store near an urban center in a suburb with expensive homes would have organic canned chili and other expensive items that my local store does not carry, but why were their shelves fuller?

But I know where I’m going to shop when the shelves at my local Walmart are empty.

The Pawn Shop

While the sign outside says “GUNS” in big letters, what impressed me the most was their selection of tools. I’ve seen Stihl dealers with fewer chain saws than these guys had. They had a shelf of Stihls and even more from Husqvarna. I told that lady behind the counter, “You have an impressive number of chain saws.”

She laughed and said, “That’s only about a third of them. We have lots more in the back.” They didn’t have as many backpack blowers or string trimmers, but that had shelves of power tools from DeWalt, Milwaukee, and others.

When guys sell their tools, especially tools that they can use to make money, it tells me times are tough. It also tells me tradesmen are getting laid off and people who did lawn work are losing jobs because their clients can’t afford to have professionals do their weed whacking and leaf blowing.

I could use a bigger chainsaw. I’m going to keep these guys in mind. Might be worth a visit when my friend Karl visits. He is my go-to guy for chainsaws.

Their gun collection was nothing to get excited about. There was no shortage of guns and they had ammo for sale, but they were mostly hunting rifles. No one seems to be parting with their assault weapons. They also had far more long guns on hand than handguns. Their handgun collection was shallow, with some variety but not much depth. If you wanted a Glock, for example, they had only two or three examples. Many guns were older, leading me to believe they sell more used guns from their pawn business than new.

Lowes was Empty

There were times when I had entire rows of the Lowes store to myself. Now I was there early afternoon on a weekday, so it’s not a busy time, but it felt empty. No one was getting paint mixed or stirred. No one was special ordering home décor or flooring, but I did see a couple at the door and window section working on a special order.

I think Lowes must be feeling the pinch as builders slow down, people stop making home improvements and hold off on an addition or deck. The shelves were well stocked, and I got the parts I needed for one of my projects. I expect there will be some big sales as we get closer to the holidays because they need to move their merchandise.

Small Signs

Compared to my recent overnight trips, I did not spend much time on the Interstate, but I saw very few trucks. On my recent road trips, I saw a decent number of trucks, so this was an anomaly. I wonder if this is because I was on an east/west interstate instead of a north/south highway? Maybe there just isn’t that much to ship. No way to know, but a concerning sign.

Everyone I spoke to was polite and friendly. For the most part, I was speaking to store employees and they were not stressed or busy, but there were no angry fellow shoppers. People nodded in greeting and drivers were polite. There was no obvious increase in security at any of the stores I visited. If people were feeling the pain, it wasn’t at what I will forever call “The Fancy Walmart” or out in the country.

Gasoline varied from $3.77 to $3.99. Of course, it was highest at the stations right off the Interstate and closer to the city.

Use the comments below to let us know how things are going in your area.

Video of the Day

I watch several of SouthernPrepper1’s “Boots on the Ground” reports each week. He says things are getting worse, and I believe him.

Tuesday’s video made a very important point about how it can take months to make repairs because of a lack of parts. He suggested testing your heater now, before you need it. That way, if it does not work, you can get it serviced and hope to have it back up and running before the cold sets in.

We once had our annual HVAC inspection in November and they found a crack in the heat exchanger. They were required by code to shut the furnace off, apparently because it might send carbon monoxide into the house. (Forgive me if I get any of the details wrong, this was years ago and I am not an HVAC expert.) it left us without a furnace for several days. While it was not our sole source of heat, I am glad it wasn’t several weeks. So heed this advice and test your systems on the next chilly evening.