Walmart’s Siren Song

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Ann Barlow.

Slide1Last week, Walmart nearly lured me in. First, Bill Clinton talked with Jon Stewart about the colossus’ (I must have Greek mythology on my mind) use of solar panels on its stores. It's now the biggest user of solar panels among commercial entities in the country. Wow, I thought. Enlightened self-interest to be sure. But such a giant operation's use of solar could have a real and lasting impact on the country's use of better energy alternatives. And likely serve as a model for others in the process.  Maybe I should be less hasty in my judgment of Walmart as a poor excuse for a corporate citizen.

Then, the new Walmart grocery store opened in town. As you might expect, a lot of residents were alarmed at its arrival and unhappy that it made its usual back-door entrance. We already have a Whole Foods, Safeway, Nob Hill and a couple of Lucky grocery stores.  Did we really need another one, especially this one?  But arrive it did, and only five minutes from my house, in a small, quiet strip mall. 

So yesterday, when I realized we were running low on orange juice, I figured I would run over and check out the new store.  My husband, Bob, was curious, too, so he joined me.  We were greeted by wide aisles, pleasant lighting and spotless displays (but no actual greeters – maybe that’s only for the regular stores).  We soon noticed that some of our regular staples were much less expensive – natural cereal for $3.  A gallon of organic milk for $5.  Hmmm.  Fresh, trustworthy foods at lower prices.  Could it be that once again we had misjudged Walmart?

Then we ran into someone we know who decided she needed to get out of the house for a few hours each week and so took a job at the new store.  We asked how it was going, and initially she raved about the quality and prices of the merchandise.  Then, her smile faltered and she admitted that the store’s move from being open for 18 hours to 24 took her and her fellow employees by surprise.  They had already accepted the fact that they wouldn’t be scheduled for more than 25 hours to avoid eligibility for health care under the current law.  But when she and others signed on, they were told they would be working a daytime shift almost exclusively, and never later than 11.  She showed us the schedule that she had just received, which included a shift for the next day that would run until 1:30 a.m.  She was sad that she was being asked to work so late and nervous considering that her husband was out of town and her two children would be alone.  She initially felt a little better that at least her pay would be higher during overnight hours, but then she learned that this increase only applied if the employee starts work at 10 pm or later.  Guess how many employees do that?  Our friend walked away, uncertain whether she could sustain such a schedule.  Too bad; she would be a good employee.

Bob and I walked out of the store with our spirits dampened.  Later, I read up a bit more on the organic groceries we had purchased.  Although the grocery giant has made real efforts to buy local produce, it also gets a great deal of its food from industrial farms.  And, its insistence on being open 24 hours, often on the outskirts of town, means more energy consumption both for the stores and those who need to drive there.

Ah, Walmart.  You nearly ensnared me.  You do offer some decent quality merchandise at low prices. You are working to reduce its energy and water consumption.  But this isn’t the triple bottom line at work.  This is Walmart looking to be as profitable as it can be.  And if towns and small businesses and employees get in the way of that, so be it.

I consider this experience to be my Circe’s warning, and like Odysseus, I’ll heed it — minus the beeswax in the ears and being tied to the mast, perhaps.  Be careful, fellow consumers.  Like the siren’s song of Greek mythology, Walmart’s prices, down-home ambiance and corporate citizenry efforts are very alluring.  And ultimately, very deadly.

2 thoughts on “Walmart’s Siren Song

  1. Julie, I understand Horizon, Walmart’s dairy partner, had to go to China for milk to meet the Walmart demand at one point. This is a good column on the potential benefits and hazards of Walmart’s decision to offer organics.

  2. Great post on the subtle seduction of some slimy corporations. I am surprised that the organic milk wasn’t made in China.