Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices

While in Arizona, I went to a Unitarian Universalist (UU) showing of the film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices” at WO’s church.

The website lists the movie as “Breathtaking,” “Mesmerizing,” and worth “Two thumbs up.”

Honestly, I think the only person who found the movie “breathtaking” was this one lady in the congregation who gasped at every number thrown up on the screen. She was either asthmatic or had no idea that numbers could go above one thousand.

As far as it being worth “two thumbs up,” I think the movie makers may have been putting those thumbs some place the sun doesn’t shine, because the movie is a bit painful to watch.

Now, I think it’s excellent that people want to get the message out about Wal-Mart. It’s an annoying store with hideous practices that treats its workers like shit. I’m all for boycotting the place (an ineffective as that will be, alas–see below), and if Sam’s Club wasn’t the bestest place to get Bulk items, I’d be able to successfully and completely do that.

But throwing this piece of propoganda in the faces of people you want to call intelligent, thinking consumers is just silly. They toss out numbers with neither comparisons nor percentages. How do I know that a couple of thousand employees’ children on Medicare in [some state] is actually a large amount compared to 1) the total number of children of workers for Wal-Mart in that state, 2) the number of children on Medicare in that state period, 3) the number of grocery/hardware store/electronic story employees’ children on Medicare in that same state, etc. Give me something to compare that to. Numbers that large are useless except for making that lady on the other side of the room gasp again.

So much of the movie could have been cut to make it much more intelligent. I tend to think that if you treat people like thinking adults, they will generally step up to the plate. This movie doesn’t treat them that way. It treats them like brainwashed zombies who need to be swayed with tactics similar to those in Wal-Mart commercials: showing good ol’ white bread Christian Americans being trampled by the forces of Wal-Mart and silly goverments that unevenly hand out subsidies.

Oh, and the Photoshopped, flaming “Victory” for all the places where Wal-Mart’s been rejected?

Just fucking silly.

One thing in the movie that puzzled me a bit is that they list that Terre Haute successfully rejected the building of a Wal-Mart here. That’s odd, because there is a Wal-Mart here, and no one in their right mind would suggest Terre Haute is large enough to support two gargantuan Wal-Marts. However, I did find that a rezoning request was denied in 2004, and if that’s actually indicative of an attempt to move in (and not to expand the current store, say), that’s really just sad.

Anyway, the movie is interesting, despite its flaws. I didn’t know several of the things mentioned in the movie, including the overseas portions (China in particular) and the crime issues with the parking lots (although again, there was a distinct lack of comparison to other 24-hour stores or stores with decently large parking lots, like Target, K-Mart, Walgreen’s, etc.).

They also left out anything on Wal-Mart’s censorship practices, which bothered both me and WO. Maybe it was thought that those white bread Christian folks would care less about those issues. (Read Metro Active’s “Wal-Mart Censorship“, PBS’s “Store Wars: Wal-Mart Business Practices“, and Wired.com’s “The Games Wal-Mart Doesn’t Play“.)

Unfortunately, the film is also hitting all the wrong crowds. Over ninety percent of the showings of the film in a particular religious outreach program have been by UU churches. My thoughts on the consequences of doing so can probably be inferred from my choice to include the following paraphrase of a woman’s comments in the discussion that ensued after the movie showing I attended:

I don’t see why even poor families need to shop at Wal-Mart. I say, go to the Dollar Store. Everything you need can be gotten there. You need food? Get it at the Dollar Store. Diapers? Dollar Store. […] I tell you, I just bought $1000 worth of Christmas gifts, all from the Dollar Store!

…Yeah. This was in response to WO’s comment that the hardest thing to get around in boycotting Wal-Mart is the fact that many people have too few options fiscally other than to shop at Wal-Mart because they are, sadly enough, the cheapest place for many things in a town like Terre Haute. Boycotting has to come from everyone, not just the [upper-]middle-class folks that can choose to go elsewhere with only a barely-felt pinch on the wallet.

…A thousand dollars worth of gifts… Yeah.

Anyway, Wal-Mart has poor business practices. Boycott it if you agree. Write to your city officials if it looks like a[nother] Wal-Mart may appear in your town.

12 thoughts on “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices”

  1. I read a really good paper a few weeks ago on Walmart, and the author made the point that Walmart is good because all it does is use capitalism to its advantage.

    On a side note, if you have financial problems you probably don’t need $1000 of Christmas gifts.

    However, boycotting Walmart and going instead to Kroger or Kmart will not help anything. The real problem isn’t Walmart’s business practices or employee treatments–its the loss of money from the local community. Instead, give your money to the local guy. I shop at Baesler’s frequently, which is a local independent TH grocery store. More expensive? A little bit, but that’s not my biggest concern.

    I was talking to my boss this summer, and he was telling me that ten-fifteen years ago there were virtually no chains in TH. Maybe they didn’t have 200 restaurants, but they had local restaurants. Good? Bad? I really don’t know, but it’s something to think about.

    The bottom line is that regardless of whether or not Walmart is just a capitalistic crusader, it’s a hell of a lot easier to offer cheaper prices when you’re grossing 288 billion dollars a year, and it is very hard for a business to compete with that.

  2. Dave:
    The way I look at Walmart and capitalism is in the context of competition. I’m one of those folks who thinks that capitalism is well and good as long as competition is allowed to occur. However, left unchecked, monopolies form… stop me if this is all old to anyone. Anyway, for capitalism and the invisible hand and all that to work, something (regulations, public opinion, etc.) has to limit the formation of large monopolies and monoliths like Wal-Mart. Otherwise, you get consumerism — Coke vs. Pepsi, Nike vs. Reebok, Democrat vs. Republican — instead of capitalism (or citizenship, in the case of the political arena).

    Oh, and yay for local business. I’m all for promoting mom-and-pops and places that haven’t been homogenized to death. Of course, I can afford to pay a little extra for them.

  3. On the TH issue with Wal-Marts being rejected – yes they did reject another one in TH city limits.

    It was going to be out at whatever 3rd turns into and Fort-Harrison or that general vicinity anyway. The zoning didn’t go through for them to build.

    Also, there’s talk about a Walmart going in at the exit by Rose. If I remember correctly it’s going to be where they’re doing all that work and it’s going in with a stip mall.

    Don’t hold me to the specifics, but that’s the gist of it. Also, Wal-Mart’s not all that bad. Of course, I’m cheap.

  4. Luke:

    So by, “Also, Wal-Mart’s not all that bad,” I take it that in your view, Wal-Mart’s employee policies, their practices in China, their environmental transgressions, their labor union suppression, their censorship, and the other ways in which they cut costs to keep prices low don’t matter as long as they are the cheapest?

  5. Their practices in China don’t bother me; allow the Chinese government to deal with it…except they don’t mind either. Silly Communists.

    I don’t know anything about their environmental problems, so not much I can say about that.

    Labor unions aren’t all that great. You’ll rarely see me ever say that modern unions are great things. Even when Dad was a member of the local whatever at GE it wasn’t that great of a service; they provide as little good and as much harm (and in just as many cases the long term harm could be worse).

    Their censorship is not my problem. I don’t buy most of my entertainment from them. If you buy your entertainment from them then you (implicitly) agree with the censorship. Amazon is available to most anyone and is usually on par for prices in that particular area – on top of which even though Wal-mart has a lot of crap they rarely carry all of my tastes. (Except for the most recent Garth Brooks box set which is only available from Wal-mart.)

    And if they’re cutting costs then the costs probably weren’t necessary in the first place.

    As to their employee policies I don’t see how they’re particularly different from any other chain in the country. Rely on child labor? I would doubt that it’s no more than McDonald’s does or for that matter what the average family store requires. Dad tells stories of going in to help his father run the grocery store before they lost it..and lemme tell you these stories don’t include government sanctioned breaks or time restrictions for hours worked in a week.

    To their other policies…since when is health insurance a right? If I hire you and pay you and that’s what we all agree to then insurance isn’t part of the deal. Yeah, that sucks a whole lot and can ruin someone who needs access to health care insurance, but there is no requirement to offer insurance of any sort. That’s a problem with the health care industry just as much as with any company’s provisions for health care.

    Any other problems Wal-mart has had employee-wise I’m sure could be credited to just about every other company in the country to some extent, but with the numbers at Wal-mart it’s just more noticable (Wal-mart is one of the largest employers in the country- I’d imagine that the percentage of treating employees like shit is probably on par with the percentages at most other companies).

    I won’t say that Wal-mart is perfect, but I can’t see a reason to go all hater on the company.

  6. ^ Pretty much what I was going to say… except I would add a smidgen of corruption ’cause they do like to screw their employees a bit…

  7. If someone works at Walmart and doesn’t like it because a) don’t get paid enough b) don’t get health insurance c) get locked in overnight [http://www.dsausa.org/lowwage/walmart/2004/Workers%20Assail%20Night%20Lock-Ins.html], then he or she should quit and find other employment. If Walmart will hire someone, I’m sure there are plenty of other potential employers, possibly with better benefits.

    I don’t see how anyone can argue that Walmart is to blame; people choose to work there, and it is by no means the best paying or only option. IF people realized they could do better, maybe Walmart would step it up a notch to keep their employees.

  8. “[H]e or she should quit and find other employment” – One of the problems with a Wal-Mart coming to town (particularly small towns) is that it kills the job market. No job market, no jobs (or very few).

    Consider an unskilled worker in a town with a fairly saturated unskilled job market (been there and done that, myself, actually, after I graduated high school). Options are beyond limited, and if you aren’t a high school student living on daddy’s income, you can only afford to spend so much of your time searching for another job (because you need to be working at the job you have [i.e. Wal-Mart] to make a living).

    If the unskilled job market in a city the size of Charlotte, NC can become nearly saturated to the point where one person can job hunt five hours a day, several days a week and not be able to get a job, it’s not unreasonable that it could happen elsewhere. There’s evidence that job markets are hurt by incoming Wal-Marts (although not in my case, of course).

    Yes, people choose to work at Wal-Mart. But the choice isn’t always between being ringing up groceries at Wal-Mart vs. Kroger. For many people, it’s the choice between feeding themselves and/or their family, or failing to do so.

  9. Luke:

    “And if they’re cutting costs then the costs probably weren’t necessary in the first place.”

    So costs in the area of parking lot security aren’t necessary when Wal-Mart themselves conducted a study that found that not only is 80% of their store crime committed in the parking lots, but that that number would be “drastically reduced” by merely putting a person in a golf cart on the premises?

    Same for environmental practices, except, of course, you don’t know (or care) anything about that.

    “If you buy your entertainment from them then you (implicitly) agree with the censorship.”

    Likewise, if you purchase from Wal-Mart, then you are supporting their business practices. Hence the reason for my choice not to buy from them. (You didn’t really progress the argument there.)

    “Rely on child labor?” Where did I say anthing about child labor?

    “To their other policies…since when is health insurance a right?” – First, again, when did I mention a lack of health insurance as a problem? I mentioned the number of employees’ children on Medicare, but that’s a separate issue. I would have thought both you and Dulin Repulican enough to dislike a company that explicitly tells its employees to rely on government medical insurance and helps them sign up, in fact. Do you like the idea of paying for Wal-Mart employees’ medical insurance?

    “Any other problems Wal-mart has had employee-wise I’m sure could be credited to just about every other company in the country to some extent, but with the numbers at Wal-mart it’s just more noticable (Wal-mart is one of the largest employers in the country- I’d imagine that the percentage of treating employees like shit is probably on par with the percentages at most other companies).”

    No one said that Wal-Mart is unique in any particular area of their nastiness. What we have in the case of Wal-Mart, however, is a complete set of practices that I find offensive and refuse to support. Case closed.

    “I won’t say that Wal-mart is perfect, but I can’t see a reason to go all hater on the company.”

    Congrats. Have fun shopping there. *shrug*

  10. They explicitly tell their employees to rely on the government for healthcare coverage and they set it up??

    Walmart evil. Must kill.

    Low prices. One stop shopping.

    Bad for local economies.

    Sooo easy.

    What is the average American to do…?
    I don’t have the answer. :-/

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