Why Shopping at Walmart Is No Bargain
The following originally appeared on Truth-out.org.
Next time someone tells you they shop at Walmart because it's cheap or convenient, share this.
Despite 1,500 protests nationwide against Walmart, the world's biggest retailer claimed its most lucrative Black Friday ever in 2013. Our friends and neighbors flock there.
They do - even those who have seen mom-and-pop stores shut down when Walmart moved into town, who miss being able to pick up one or two items and be out of a store in 10 minutes, who personally know Walmart employees relying on food stamps and who have heard how much money the Walton family continues to accumulate.
Walmart is the poster child for how huge corporations have undermined people's ability to make a living. It does this by sending manufacturing abroad to countries where labor is cheap, at the same time paying its own employees less than a living wage, using other unfair labor practices in numerous locations in the United States, and undercutting locally owned enterprises right out of business. It harms Main Streets and local commerce centers across the country and further drives people to malls.
So why do people go there? When asked this question, Walmart shoppers uniformly respond that "it's cheap and convenient, and I can't afford to shop at [other places]."
I'd wager they never saw Robert Greenwald's chilling 2005 documentary for Brave New Films, Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price, or read some basic facts about Walmart put together in one place. I think they'd feel differently if shown ways to shop that are just as inexpensive. At least I hope so.
Raking It In
In 2012, the world's largest retailer registered about $466 billion in sales ($13 billion of which went to shareholders). Since its founding in 1962 by Sam Walton, the megalithic privately held corporation has blanketed the USA with more than 4,100 stores and the world with nearly 11,100. It employs 2.2 million people, about 1.3 million in the United States. It's the 26th-largest economy in the world, bigger than those of Belgium, the Philippines, Venezuela, Sweden, Austria and many other prosperous nations.
In 2010, CEO Michael Duke's annual salary of $35 million (excluding perks) earned him more in an hour than a full-time employee makes in an entire year - 1,034 times the average worker's pay. (A longtime employee from outside the Walton clan, Doug McMillon, was named the new CEO in late November 2013, but his compensation figures have not been released.)
The six heirs of Sam Walton have more money than the bottom 41.5 percent - or 48.8 million families - of all Americans, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data. (And the heirs' income rose 22 percent during the years 2008-12, while the Forbes 400 lost 19 percent and the rest of us saw our median family wealth drop 38.8 percent.)
What's wrong with this? Isn't it every American's right to make as much money as possible? If they're doing a good job, why shouldn't they be well-compensated?
Let's say we forget about the family members who were just born into the family of Sam Walton and who inherited the money he'd earned by hard work and crafty planning - the heirs who are expert at shielding their inheritance billions from taxation by taking advantage of (quite legal) tax loopholes set up to benefit billionaires - which Congress apparently won't even contemplate scrutinizing.
Let's talk instead only about workers who deserve to be compensated for their hard work - that's the American dream, after all. Toil and dedication are supposed to pay off with a comfort level that includes a decent home in a safe neighborhood, with reasonably nice furnishings; the ability to put good, healthful food on your family's table; being able to pay your medical and education bills; having a vehicle or access to public transportation that makes your commute and errand-running simple and convenient; having a little money for entertainment, recreation and retirement savings; and being able to take at least a small vacation annually.
Not too much to expect, is it? Especially if you're working for the biggest retailer by far on the planet. ( Walmart is huger than the next six retailers combined.)
The median annual salary for a full-time Walmart employee has been estimated at$18,000 to $22,000. In a study commissioned by the (Democratic Party) Committee on Education and the Workforce in 2013 in Wisconsin, Walmart was ranked as the employer with the most workers - 3,216 - on the state's Medicaid program. Walmart was responsible for 9,207 enrollees, including the children and adult dependents of those workers. Thus the burden of paying for the Walmart employees' families' food assistance and medical services falls (estimated at nearly $1 million at one store alone) to their fellow taxpayers.
That's how Walmart likes it. It's part of its business model, just as is outsourcing jobs to countries with lower wages.
War on Workers
A CNN Money senior editor calculated in 2013 that Walmart could afford to give all its employees a 50 percent pay raise without hurting its bottom line. But it does not.
Instead, it had 110 or so peaceful protesters (including Santa Claus in Claremont, California) arrested on Black Friday 2013 outside its stores from coast to coast. There were some 1,500 demonstrations altogether, which makes it quite obvious there's something radically wrong at the house that Sam built. (And the peaceful demonstrators, not the violent brawlers inside, were arrested!)
This all seems pretty unfriendly to the US economy and society - downright unAmerican, in fact.
Black Friday 2012 saw protests by Walmart employees and supporters as well; the movement is growing, as people realize there's more to fear from slowly starving to death and being squeezed out of affordable housing than from protesting peacefully, even if the latter involves getting arrested.
The employees who were forced to work on Thanksgiving (because "it's what shoppers want; it's the retail trend") had to give up their own time with their friends and families and had no choice in the matter. Do we really need another shopping day that badly?
Shop 'Til You Drop (Someone)
The entire consumerism culture is personified by Walmart. Remember the employee who was trampled to death a few years ago by shoppers who knocked down the doors on Black Friday to be the first in the store? Apparently #WalMartFights and #BrawlMart were breaking out all over the country this year, too. It's sickening, and Walmart plays that stuff up.
But many argue in defense of their use of Walmart (which now, thanks to the same kind of strong-arm tactics it uses with suppliers of other goods, has a phenomenal 25 percent share of all US food market sales), that it's cheap and healthful.
Stacy Mitchell wrote in Grist in December 2011, pointing to a study in Social Science Quarterly that showed that neighborhoods where a Walmart store opens have more poverty and food-stamp usage than communities without a Walmart. This might have something to do with Walmart's record of putting other employers out of business - and more people out of work.
If that's not bad enough, another recent study concluded that Walmart makes us fat. "An additional supercenter per 100,000 residents increases ... the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points. ... These results imply that the proliferation of Walmart supercenters explains 10.5 percent of the rise in obesity since the late 1980s."
Walmart employees, restaurant employees and other retail workers are fighting for decent pay across the country, even as politicians in collusion with megacorporations are doing their darnedest to squash the labor movement and convince us that we need big corporations like Walmart, which are "creating jobs" and making the world safe for consumption.
In truth, this is class warfare, pure and simple, and the workers and employees of the big corporations, the ones doing the hardest work, as well as the customers, are considered the lower classes by the ones at the top. About 99 percent of us are in the lower classes.
The moneyed class is starting to get worried as it sees more of the "lesser" people starting to realize how bad things are - and who's to blame. Corporations are now acting out more against the people, which is a sign of their fear of the strength of organized resistance.
A Few Big Problems
But we still need to understand more widely that shopping at Walmart and other huge retail corporations is spending money toward our own economic downward spiral. (If the minimum hourly wage had advanced with the cost of living and productivity from its high-water mark of 1968, it would have been $21.72 in 2012, according to a March 2012 studyby John Schmitt for the Center for Economic Policy and Research. How close is your salary to that number?)
Walmart workers - just like fast-food workers, retail staff, hospitality workers, adjunct faculty members, journalists, nurses, teachers, firefighters, factory workers, domestic workers, administrative assistants, middle managers and everyone else who is working for ever-shrinking paychecks - don't want a government or corporate handout.
They simply want to be paid a decent, livable wage for their honest labor. They'd like to be able to expect to leave their kids as much as or more than they were left by their parents, even though their parents were able to leave them less than the previous generation did. But the next generations are not only going to be left less economically, they're going to be fighting for their very survival.
If the working classes don't realize we all need to stand up for one another, starting with our shopping choices, we are hopeless.
Walmart and fast food chains, with their low prices, convenience and addictive high-fat, high-sugar content, are really just a part of a much bigger picture - one that includes the looming "trade agreement" called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, something that makes job-exporting NAFTA look benign. Walmart is one of the huge corporations pushing the TPP hard, because it would then be able to move more of its factories into countries like Vietnam, where the minimum hourly wage is 36 cents. (The TPP is another whole ball of wax, to which we should be paying close attention because it will affect our lives directly and unremittingly.)
Not Our Responsibility
But back to talking about Vietnam, which isn't that far from Bangladesh in that it's another of the poor countries with low wages where people assemble many of the goods sold in US stores like Walmart.
One hundred twelve Bangladeshi workers were killed in a November 2012 fire, caused by negligence, as they were sewing garments to be sold primarily in Walmart and Sears. We learned after this tragedy that those two giant corporations had earlier refused to fund safety improvements at any of the more than 4,000 factories in which Bangladeshis labored to make goods for US markets - and in which more than 700 garment workers had died since 2005.
Even after the tragic fire, Walmart and Gap and other big brands refused to sign a new safety plan introduced by unions. They claimed it was "not financially feasible." Yet, as the Atlantic reported, Scott Nova at the DC-based Worker Rights Consortium calculated that sufficient safety retrofits and new systems would add 8 cents to the cost of a garment, or .00004 (four one-thousandths of a percent) of a retailer's total corporate revenue.
Just five months after the fire, Bangladesh was hit by an even more unspeakable disaster when the eight-story Rana Plaza collapsed, killing at least 1,129 and harming more than 2,000, some of whom lost limbs and suffered other extreme injuries. (None of the victims had yet been compensated six months after the May 2013 catastrophe; Walmart claimed it was not liable because at the time of the collapse it was no longer using any of the five garment factories that operated out of the building's third to eighth floors.)
It is clear that Bangladeshis' deaths - and lives - don't mean much to US commerce (transcript, May 5, 2013, about two-thirds of the way down the page.[i] It's just a cost of doing business[ii], and the bad public relations last only days before "consumers," as we are considered by Walmart and other retailers, forget all about these human tragedies and go back to our bargain hunting.
Maybe It Is Our Responsibility
But maybe we'll realize those bargains come with too steep a price. What price, for example, might we put on the life of the pregnant mother of two who was in the process of stitching the trim on that $14 scarf for Walmart when she was partially crushed by bricks in the Rana Plaza building (and would finally, mercifully, die 17 hours later)[iii]?
Maybe we'll begin understanding the connections between the conditions suffered by those slogging away in factories halfway around the world; the outrageous salaries of CEOs who work sometimes fewer hours than we do, even including two-hour lunches; the gutting of labor laws; the spikes in health care and education costs (have you looked at college tuition numbers lately?); the easing of regulations intended to protect the environment and people from corporate harm; the court decisions on behalf of negligent corporations; and our own lack of upward mobility and hope.
Maybe we'll see that shopping at Walmart isn't the affordable, convenient delight we'd thought it.
Many Americans are starting to understand firsthand what it feels like to be dehumanized. We are losing our jobs, having to switch careers, finding ourselves in a credit bind, and maybe losing our homes to foreclosure - or at least we know some middle-class people who have experienced such tough circumstances. It does not sit well.
Walmart is sued several times a day, sometimes in class action lawsuits, sometimes forallegations of employee rights violations, sometimes for injuries sustained by customers or employees in its stores or parking lots. And in November 2012, it allegedly fired 117 workers because they threatened to join Black Friday protests. That case is with the National Labor Relations Board, which may sue.
But to get back to that worry over affordability: It's all well and good to say we might make a statement with our wallets, but practical matters prevail. We need to pinch pennies in these economic times - when few workers have any chance of upward mobility.
Yet there are numerous ways of shopping conveniently and supporting local farmers and businesses that are as affordable as shopping at megamonsters like Walmart (which may have started off pretty decent in the Sam Walton days, when he went out of his way to hire older workers, people with disabilities and veterans).
Here are a few ideas to get you started and that don't demand a drastically changed lifestyle (well, except maybe for number 5).
- Community-supported agriculture means you can buy a share in a farm to have fresh vegetables every week during the growing season.
- Cooperative extensions and other community groups teach how to can, freeze and dry food for the months when things aren't growing.
- You can grow herbs and salad leaves, including the increasingly popular microgreens, indoors on a windowsill and add vitamins to your family's diet.
- If your family eats meat, it is much more economical to arrange with a farmer to buy one-quarter or one-half a pig or bull or lamb, or so many chickens or ducks or turkeys, or split an order with a neighbor.
- Switch to a vegetarian diet, and you will really save money (and almost certainly feel better).
- Buy dry goods such as beans, rice, cereal, grains, flour, sugar, nuts and dried fruits in bulk.
- Use cloth napkins instead of paper and reusable blotters instead of paper towels
- Switch to a menstrual cup and cloth pads instead of tampons and disposable pads.
- Challenge yourself to buy only goods made in the United States, and check the labels on everything.
- Go to or start a swap meet, where people bring clothing or items they no longer want and pick up your discards.
- Do a seedswapor plant swap or plant-pots swap to get your flower and vegetable garden started, or boost your indoor garden. Start an indoor garden per number 3.
- Try to wean yourself off plastic of every kind.
- When things break that shouldn't, mail them back to the manufacturer COD (collect on delivery, so they pay), with a letter saying you are not satisfied with their shoddy products.
- There are scores more ideas. Visit your cooperative extension site for ways to save. There are plenty of websites and blogs devoted to stopping consumerism and becoming more self-reliant.
You will feel better about yourself and your habits - but if none of that is enough, here's the coup de grace.
The most common defense given by colleagues and friends about their decision to continue shopping at Walmart is, hands down, price. They say they can't afford to shop elsewhere, and that Walmart is a one-stop shop where they can save time as well as money.
But Walmart is not cheaper for fresh food. I understood that it undercut other stores on packaged foods such as cereals and canned goods, but most fresh vegetables and dairy foods cost more there.
Plus, in an online spot check on December 2, 2013, I found, to my complete surprise, that my local food store Wegmans had considerably better prices on almost all of the brand items I tried. Walmart either didn't have preferred sizes or did not supply in-store prices on its website; one would have to order by the case online or go to the store to find out how much things cost. Generally I would not buy brand-name goods - I frequently buy in bulk - and I'd be saving even more by buying the Wegmans ("Food You Feel Good About") brand or brandless options.
Goya black beans, 29-ounce can
Walmart: $2.47/can when bought in a case of 12 online
Wegmans: $1.99 per can
Bumblebee solid white albacore tuna, 5-ounce can
Walmart: $2.33/can when bought in a case of 24 online
Wegmans: $1.59 per can
DeCecco Fettucini Pasta, 16-ounce box
Walmart: $4.55/box when bought in case of 10
Wegmans (Penne, Angel Hair, Spaghettini or Orrechiette only): $2
Blue Diamond Almond Breeze Almond Milk, 64 ounces
Walmart: 32-ounce case of 12, $3.15 (x 2) - $6.30 for 64 ounces
Planters Dry Roasted Party Size Peanuts With Sea Salt, 34.5 ounces
Hellman's Real Mayonnaise, 30-ounce jar
Walmart: (not available)
Quaker Oats, Quick, 18 ounces
Kashi Autumn Wheat Cereal, 16.3 ounces
So that last great argument about Walmart being more affordable is dead in the water. Could a caring, sensible person continue to shop there, knowing all that we now know?
[i] An Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh was announced in October 2013; it is "a legally binding agreement [that] has been signed by over 100 apparel corporations from 19 countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia; two global trade unions . . . and numerous Bangladeshi unions. . . . The International Labour Organisation (ILO) acts as the independent chair." Wal-Mart is not among the signatories.
[iii] This is the author's speculation, not an actual anecdote.