Choosing to Shop at Wal-Mart (or Not)

Although I’m not often vocal about my views on the matter, people who know me well know that I purposefully avoid Wal-Mart. I have yet to set foot in one of their stores, and my intention is to take my business elsewhere. Always. My resolve is tested more strenuously living here at Murray Creek, in that the Wal-Mart store in Jackson is by far the closest big box store to home. Target is a half hour further away in El Dorado Hills, along with my favorite big box store, Costco. So far, though, relative convenience of location has not tempted me to shop at Wal-Mart.

Last night, I finally got around to watching Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, a 2005 documentary film by director Robert Greenwald. The movie paints a rather grim picture of Wal-Mart’s policies through interviews and stories of people impacted by them, including business owners forced to close their stores after Wal-Mart opened nearby, and who were upset about huge tax subsidies paid to Wal-Mart, about employees kept to part time hours or forced to work overtime for no pay, whose paychecks were not enough to feed their families and pay medical insurance premiums, of the drastic measures taken by the company to thwart efforts of workers to unionize, about small towns whose business districts were decimated by Wal-Mart, and about discriminatory practices against women and minorities, to name some of the topics. If only half of what is reported in the movie is true or indicative of real systemic problems, it would still be a deeply disturbing tale.

The movie ends with stories of people working to stop Wal-Mart stores from being opened in their neighborhoods, and invites us to take action as well. Overall, the impression the movie gave me was that Wal-Mart is a monster that must be stopped. Note the movie poster pictured here, which further illustrates this perspective.

Although I have made my choice not to support Wal-Mart, I don’t think it’s quite so cut and dry as Wal-Mart=Evil.

A couple of decades ago (egad), I worked for a tee shirt company called Sun Sportswear. Sun started as a small print shop, then experienced explosive growth as a result of landing the big three mass market retailers as customers. I remember when the company received its first Wal-Mart order. There was great rejoicing and celebration, as you might imagine. Sun accelerated from less than a million to over $70 million in annual sales within a few years, mainly as a result of K mart, Target and Wal-Mart. My career grew with the company, in no small part thanks to the rocket fuel that doing business with Wal-Mart injected into the operation. I’ll be the first to point out that I’ve directly benefited from Wal-Mart’s business.

Sun’s story is not unique, nor is mine. Once can find many stories online and in books (The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman is my favorite) about companies and people who experience great success as Wal-Mart vendors and associates. I’ve read arguments that Wal-Mart’s mission to hold or reduce prices has had a dampening affect on inflation, helping to keep overall prices more affordable. With $345 billion (!) in sales for the fiscal year ending January 2007, and with more than 4,000 locations in the U.S. and 2,800 overseas (as reported on their own website), yes, they are that big. Wal-Mart constantly pressures vendors to maintain or lower their wholesale prices, which forces the vendors to become more efficient, which can help companies become better operations.

Still, I avoid the place. I’m worried that the company’s practices are hurting more people than they are helping.

Here’s an entertaining excerpt from The Wal-Mart Effect that explains some aspects of their incredible influence.

I choose to avoid Wal-Mart because I value the well-being of people all over the world, and I’m afraid that in supporting Wal-Mart I’m supporting an organization that routinely impacts huge numbers of people in negative, often even devastating, ways. While I don’t believe that any retailer is a perfect model (Costco is my top choice for its combination of ethics, product quality, and value), Wal-Mart has a singular impact as it exerts a gravitationally powerful pull on our entire economy. I have yet to find evidence that that pull is best for us.

So I go to Costco. And wonderful, quirky Angels Food Market & Deli, an independent grocery store in Angels Camp that specializes in organic foods and produce. And Target. I am willing to pay more for higher quality products, as well as a cleaner, more open and upscale shopping environment (the latter I admit is based somewhat on hearsay, as I don’t plan to go in a Wal-Mart to personally evaluate the atmosphere). I will look for products that have a higher chance of being produced in a place where workers are well-treated and paid a living wage.

I don’t tell people not to shop at Wal-Mart. I do have a request, if people ask me about it: find out about Wal-Mart’s business and decide if it’s something you’d like to support. Weigh the benefits of paying a lower price against the repercussions of those low prices. If you don’t have a problem with what you find out, then shop away. I’d like us simply to make a considered, conscious choice.

This Wikipedia article entitled “Criticism of Wal-Mart” presents lots of referenced information regarding Wal-Mart’s various impacts. And, for a very balanced look at how Wal-Mart works and what it means for our economy and us, I can’t recommend Mr. Fishman’s book highly enough. If you find additional helpful sources of information, I would be grateful if you would share them to help us all collectively make the most informed decisions possible.

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