Rollback, by Elizabeth Gartley

One afternoon in early March, Emily “Action” Adkins (named such for her ongoing series of Action Challenges) burst into my dorm room in southern Holland proclaiming:

“I have fantastic news! There are no fewer than ninety-two Wal-Mart Supercenters in Germany!” She closed her eyes for emphasis.

Indeed, according to the website, although there are various Wal-Mart Supercenters in Canada, the UK, Asia, and even South America, Germany is the only country in the European Union which contains Wal-Mart stores of any kind.[1] There was no hesitations of “would we or wouldn’t we?” the only real question was which one?

Upon further investigation, we found that there was, indeed, a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Berlin—on Karl Marx Street.

A few short weeks later, Emily, myself, and two other of our American girlfriends were riding along the Berlin underground headed towards Wal-Mart. When we finally reached our stop and stepped out of the underground, the weather was unwelcoming: hazy and wet, windy and cold with big snow—the big sticky flakes that don’t collect, they just melt when they hit the ground.

We walked a few hundred yards, through the slush and past Döner Kebab stands, thrift stores and the Karl Marx shop, and then all of the sudden, there it was: far in the distance through the haze and snow that big blue block-letter logo. The triumph of the American Empire and all it stands for: capitalism, consumerism, commercialism. A Wal-Mart Supercenter in East Berlin, on Karl Marx Street no less, what sort of sick individual could possibly come up with something so beautiful? Some fat American greedhead with a twisted sense of humor, or maybe it was just fate, after all, could someone at Wal-Mart headquarters really appreciate this brand of irony? East Berlin (with a little help from some American experts) gives old Karl Marx one final giant middle-finger and lets him know just exactly where he can shove his Manifesto.

Damn, I wonder how to say “Rollback” in German.

We approached, and just as it couldn’t possibly get any better, there’s a McDonald’s inside. Hell, why not?

Upon entry, we saw that East Berlin Wal-Mart was lacking in that shiny, glossed-over kitsch class our American Wal-Mart stores have patented. The products were all the same, but the atmosphere was somehow different. It was subtle, but it didn’t seem so seamless. Maybe it was the floor—not bright and glistening white, but rather slightly scuffed and dirtied with the dried mud and slush people had tracked in on their feet. Overall, it felt more like one of those discount outlet stores that have to cut the Gap and Old Navy labels off so people don’t return them to the store for full price. A J. C. Penny pantsuit for two dollars, Levi’s for five.

The story felt empty, and there was no greeter and there were no sales associates roaming around pretending to be busy and helpful.

In an article that appeared in TIME a few years back, Bill Saporito wrote that while the Wal-Mart expansion had taken off in Mexico and China with great success, the German market wasn’t so welcoming. While Wal-Mart’s international division tried to “culturalize” their German managers, “German shoppers found Wal-Mart door greeters appalling and they regarded the ever helpful clerks as an intrusion on their private space.”[2]

Once inside we decided that since we certainly wanted to hit everything, the best Plan of Action was to start on the outer edge and make an inward spiral. Once we reached the inner-sanctum, we were led downstairs on some hybrid of escalator and moving sidewalk. It looked like maybe it was once an escalator—the same grated teethed sections, but rather than move apart to create stairs, they create a gradual slant downwards into the underbelly of the store, the grocery section. This is all so you can take your shopping cart down with you. The shoppers on the top level were sparse; the grocery store seems to be the main attraction. A young father heads down with his small daughter in his cart, a gray-haired lady and her adult daughter move down both holding onto their cart.

Ever since Wal-Mart introduced groceries to its stores in 1986, more of the available shoppers show up, so each store requires a smaller area to support it. Groceries have proved a powerful weapon in squashing the competition.[3]

As none of us found browsing groceries terribly interesting, we eventually grew hungry, weary and bored. We all decided it was time to wrap this adventure up. As we passed through the check-out, the girls contemplated and discussed the contradictory existence of the Milky Way bar despite the obvious presence of the Mars Bar. As we left, we grabbed some Wal-Mart flyers and exited into the cold, in search of food and shelter.

Now, I resent the hell out of the Wal-Mart in my own town, so sure, maybe there is some bad karma involved with traveling halfway across the world to visit a Wal-Mart store in a place that once represented the very heart of communism. But seriously, of all the places I’ve been in my life, I think that the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Karl Marx Street in East Berlin ranks among the highest in terms of bad karma—but I guess that was the point, wasn’t it?

[2] Saporito, Bill. “Can Wal-Mart Get Any Bigger?” TIME, 13 January, 2003.
[3] Saporito, Bill. “Can Wal-Mart Get Any Bigger?” TIME, 13 January, 2003.

photo credit: Emily Adkins