Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price

Reviewing a documentary can be a bit tricky, since it’s not always easy to divorce oneself from the subject matter of the movie and do an objective writeup.  So in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably get a few things out of the way off the bat regarding my relationship with America’s largest retailer.

Historically, my taste for Walmart has swung from nonchalance to animosity and back to somewhere between the two.  I have never had a particular affinity for the store, but there have been a few periods of time during which I stood on a rather feeble soapbox and carried out lowly one-man boycotts of it.  In college I went through a period of a few years during which I didn’t set foot into a Walmart, but now I shop there once every other week or so for a few things–as well as the local grocery store and other places too.

Had I watched this movie during my college years I would have been cheering it on for its exposé of Walmart’s shady business practices, somewhat disdainful treatment of women and minorities, shady environmental practices, and the like.  But I would have also failed to notice the movie’s decidedly one-sided treatment of these issues, and much like the director Robert Greenwald, I would have probably been first in line to condemn the Walton family for eternity.  Things are a bit different now, though…

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Let’s step back and look at how this movie functions as a documentary, and I must say, it handles its subject matter pretty well–up to a certain point, anyway.  Not content to focus on one aspect of Walmart, Greenwald examines myriad ways in which the retailer is not as wholesome as its smiley-faced logo would have the public believe.  His thesis (Walmart = evil) is supported by several vignettes, each of which serves to highlight a particular way in which Walmart is a abomination unto mankind.  He of course launches into the requisite run-the-small-guys-out-of-business complaint, choosing to focus on a hardware store owner whose 40+ year family business was done in by the construction of a nearby Walmart.  Charges of racism are brought to light through interviews with a management trainee who was allegedly told by her manager that she was ultimately denied the position because she was a black female.

The films climax showcases several communities that have successfully blocked Walmart from building nearby.

The film's climax showcases several communities that have successfully blocked Walmart from building nearby.

Similar accusations of malfeasance are brought forth via interviews with employees from all over the Walmart food chain (entry-level cashiers to former multi-decade managerial types) as well as people on the periphery, such as conservationist experts and even Chinese factory workers.  In fact, one of the most poignant segments involves a young Chinese girl who works in a factory making products for Walmart.  When word gets around that an inspector is going to be coming to the factory to investigate working conditions, the girl explains that she and her coworkers were taught specifically how to lie in order to cover up their deplorable work environment.  However, one of the weakest points made by Greenwald is in the area of environmental concern, where his entire argument is supported with only one interview with a public environmental worker who had a great deal of trouble getting one particular Walmart store to properly cover up some palettes of fertilizer.  Not much ammunition for the accusation that the entire company is environmentally irresponsible.

Intercut through all these individual stories, though, is footage of the company CEO, Lee Scott, specifically making claims that Walmart is *not* evil.  He states at a company meeting that Walmart is a great place to work, while Greenwald rolls interview footage with employees who decry just the opposite.  Scott claims that Walmart will work together with communities, while Greenwald shows how they specifically try to choke local businesses and build outside city boundaries in order to avoid paying taxes that would benefit the community.  It’s this type of point-counterpoint style that sets High Cost of Low Price apart from other documentaries, and serves to do a great deal in order to bolster Greenwald’s claim of Walmart’s inherent infamy.

Lee Scott, the president of Walmart.

Lee Scott, CEO of Walmart.

However, where I take issue with the film, and thus where it ultimately fails as a documentary and becomes more of a propaganda piece, is the fact that it completely ignores any argument that Walmart might *not* be evil.  Greenwald never interviews low-income families who are able to get clothes because of Walmart’s low prices.  He never talks with seniors who benefit from Walmart’s cheap generic prescription drugs.  He steers wide of any employee who does happen to enjoy his or her job at Walmart and only focuses on those who have been wronged.  It’s a classic case of the blind men and the elephant; there is much more to the story that is entirely ignored here.

A quote on the poster at the top of this article compares High Cost of Low Price to Morgan Spurlock’s famous documentary about McDonald’s, Super Size Me.  Ultimately both movies fail to be truly convincing because they ignore one crucial point:  if you don’t like something, don’t buy it.  The real indictment here should be the people who support Walmart, just as the problem with fast food isn’t entirely the fault of McDonald’s, it’s the fault of those who choose to eat at McDonald’s. While Walmart certainly could clean up their act, they do a lot of good for various communities too–and again, I’m trying hard to stay away from judging the thesis of the movie.  I just think High Cost of Low Price fails to be truly convincing, and thus fails to be effective as a documentary, because it is so one-sided and brazenly biased.


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  1. Alex theOGRE says

    “He steers wide of any employee who does happen to enjoy his or her job at Walmart and only focuses on those who have been wronged.”


    But, I agree that its agenda driven to attack Walmart. And, there are lots of things to attack them on, just as Im driven to kneecap Safeway, Albertsons, and AmazonFresh for their failures.

    I rarely go to WMT, mostly out of annoyance that employees dont know what they have in stock because it changes so often.

    But, I also stopped supporting a family owned hardware store because they kept price gouging my purchases when they could. And, their employees werent treated all that well to begin with, so they eagerly went for Walmart jobs.

    Bottom line for any successful company is to treat your frontline employees almost as great as you do your constant customers.

    If the anti-types want to go after bad companies, look at the meatpacking industry who goes through workers excessively, and delay any recalls until the tainted items are past their Expire dates, so they dont lose the profits.

    If the WMT workers really want a union, start your own instead of selling your souls to those who only want your $$$.

    • I think you’re spot-on about your advice for any successful company, Alex. I spent years working in a grocery store where the concept of “customer service” was constantly drilled into our heads, but it seemed like the idea of “employee service” was pretty foreign to the grocery overlords for whom I worked. I think the reason the Walmart documentary fails is because Walmart is no more or less evil than any other major corporation, and though the company does engage in some shady business practices it also does a lot of good for the communities it serves too. Especially small towns that might not otherwise have access to low-priced prescription drugs or some of the merchandise offerings that big cities have.

      I still don’t go to Walmart any more than I have to, and go out of my way to shop at the hometown stores in my city. I figure it’s just a good idea to support the little guy.

  2. I worked for Wal-Mart for almost 15 years. I worked my way up from sales clerk to assistant manager. Wal-mart is no different than any other company, they are just a bigger target. Here are the facts: WM employees people that NEED jobs to survive. Most of these people are able to have insurance for the first time in their lives. The merchandise that is offered at the stores are priced to make life a little easier for everyone. I really do not understand the snobbery of not shopping WM’s. WM is no different than Target, oh maby that Target is higher on most of the same items. I left WM to start my family and work in my husbands business. I still shop WM weekly and I do buy local when it is priced to do so. My one comment about shutting down the little guys is that can and do the little guys employee as much as WM can and do they offer insurance? I can tell you as a owner of a small business it is a big no. WM might move into small town America and as the reslut some stores close down. Im sorry for them, but I bet those owners could get a job at that WM and actually get a pay check where they werent able to pay themselves for a long time.

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