Walmart Parking Lots and Social Responsibility

Despite the reputation Walmart has, there is something I love about it. I try to explain it to others like this: you can do a wonderful deed, still be a horrible person, but your deed in and of itself is still good. Walmart’s good, socially responsible deed: letting people sleep in their parking lot.

Why would I sleep in a Walmart parking lot? Because as someone wandering on the road and not wanting to commit to a final destination until a couple of hours before bedtime, I occasionally find that all nearby campgrounds are full. Because my travels sometimes take me through an urban location and I don’t think it’s worth spending money on a hotel for a few hours. Because I’m even more exhausted than the 8-hour stay limit most states’ rest stops allow. Because if I’m willing to stay at a rest stop, why not stay at a Walmart, which is often further from the noisy freeway than a rest stop. Because as a female traveling solo on a road trip, it sometimes feels safer to just park and sleep rather than try to find an obscure campground in the dark down winding roads with poor location markings.

I’ve taken advantage of Walmart’s socially responsible offering when I’ve opted-in to a very temporary homelessness. But think of the actual homeless: instead of having to furtively find a small spot of street in a neighborhood to spend the night, there is a space that they are welcome and can comfortably know they are accepted. To my knowledge, there are not very many places open like that.

For those unfamiliar with the whole spending-the-night-in-a-Walmart-parking-lot culture, particularly as utilized by those who are road trips, let me give you an idea.

By 8pm there are usually enough cars and RVs parked toward the back of the parking lot that I’d need at least three hands to count them all on fingers. People generally try to leave several parking spaces between each other. In particularly crowded lots, it may mean staggering in spots such that you are only diagonally neighbors with other vehicles.

Bozeman, Montana’s Walmart seems to be a special case. I arrived and there were probably about 25 or more vehicles, majority RVs, already at the back of the parking lot. By morning, I’d say the number was 30-35. RVs already take up more space, and often tow a small vehicle. At this Walmart, there were a few clusters of RVs that had parked to create a square with their vehicles, making a sort of commons or community space between the travelers, reminiscent of the circling of wagons. I suspect they either became friends in the parking lot, or happen to be following similar travel routes, and made friends at other site-seeing spots or other Walmarts. Or maybe they were simply caravanning friends. Bozeman’s store is also designed in a way to develop more of a community and social feel for the overnighters. Back where everyone parks, there is a brick picnic area, with a few benches, picnic tables, and trash cans. Perhaps this lot is known to be more popular among travelers, due to its proximity to Yellowstone National Park.

I haven’t spent a lot of time delving into the criticisms of Walmart, but from conversations I’ve had to listen to, it revolves around how the company treats their employees. Maybe overall it’s true, maybe treatment in this case is defined as benefits given or not by the company to employees. But from my experiences, these are some of the friendliest employees I have come across. They are genuine, they are smiling, and I see no bickering or disgust on the floors or in the back. Sure, maybe it’s the small town, friendly culture coming out in particular Walmarts. Consider this, though. Elderly have greeting jobs. There are way more employees on hand than is probably necessary. Maybe that means they’re part-time and don’t qualify for benefits. In these small, rural populations, Walmart is probably the biggest employer for miles. Chatting with a local in one of these areas, it sounds like it’s very rare to be able to rely on a stable check coming in every month. Working for Walmart means at least there’s one stable income source, even if small.

Oh and do you want to know the best Walmart overnight experience so far? West Virginia. I was parked on the edge of a field, which itself was on the edge of a forest, and I watched deer graze as the sun set behind them.