Instead of the typical family battles over light meat versus dark or predictions on who would win the football games, our Thanksgiving pre-dinner conversation revolved around the new Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is the feature-length documentary produced by Brave New Films, whose other works include Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and Uncovered: The War on Iraq. This latest documentary purports to "uncover a retail giant's assault on families and American values." Okey-dokey. I guess we know where this one's heading.
The film opened officially in selected theaters on Nov. 4, and it went nationwide the week of Nov. 13 through a network of free screenings. Anyone can participate in this ongoing non-traditional release strategy by signing up at online at Walmartmovie.com and ponying up $12.95 to purchase a film copy. If you don't want to part with your cash, you'll be able to scroll through a listing of screenings throughout the world (!) and see whether any neighbors or organizations in your locale are hosting an event.
The movie itself is humorless but eye-opening. Letting affected individuals tell their personal stories, it reels off a litany of alleged bad behavior by Wal-Mart. The criticisms range from the oft-recited complaint of new Wal-Marts pushing out local small businesses to charges of discrimination, union busting, exorbitant health insurance costs, and encouragement of employees to turn to the government for financial assistance. Even the most ardent Wal-Mart supporter may be surprised to learn that the company considers 28-hour work weeks to constitute full employment, even though that equates to an approximately $13,000 annual salary.
In my opinion, as long as the film disseminates accurate information, then that alone is valuable. But before you unload on me, I'll admit that this is where things get tricky. I think the film's weakness lies in its inability to assess the credibility of the former employees and other affected parties who may have their own biased axes to grind. In addition, although the producers invited Wal-Mart's CEO, H. Lee Scott, to be interviewed, his refusal almost leaves an impression of the company as a hapless target.
Nevertheless, the facts and statistics cited in the film are bold and unnerving. Do your own homework to see where you think the truth lies. For their part, the film's producers document their citation of statistics in a page of their website that they titled "facts." The site also includes links to Wal-Mart's response, including an alleged script sent to every store manager to respond to the film. Then, do even more reading by going to Wal-Mart's own "Good Works" site, walmartfoundation.org, and see how the company presents itself.
Here are some of the topics I tried to toss around with my family during Thanksgiving:
- Should there be any constraints on a corporation's effort to maximize shareholder value if that corporation operates within the law?
- Does that answer change if the corporation receives significant governmental subsidies?
- Is it fair to view a corporation as a provider of a social safety net?
- Should we mind if a corporation applies strong leverage over its supply chain if it can ultimately deliver inexpensive items to benefit the consumer?
- Is the death of Main Street an unfortunate but inevitable effect of successful giant retailers?
My family was mildly interested in discussing these questions. Their comments ranged from those of city dwellers offering that they never shopped there anyway to Great Grandma Frieda declaring that everyone should note the many employment opportunities that the company provides. No serious discussion of the issues ensued. Ultimately, I think they just wanted to sit down for dinner.
So what is the answer to the so-called "problem of Wal-Mart"? Producer/director Robert Greenwald says that "the film cannot and should not answer that. The film shines a light on the problem, connects the dots, makes what is abstract personal, and tells a story. The film is not the solution; that comes from the good people around the country who use the power of democracy to exercise their opinions, views, and activism in numerous ways. Wal-Mart is a big corporate problem. It will not be fixed by one film or one action, but the film will be a step toward the vital debate, discussion, and actions we need to begin to get the problem front and center."
I'm not a Wal-Mart shareholder -- not because of ethical considerations but simply because I've just never allocated a significant portion of my portfolio to retail stocks. I don't shop there more than once or twice a year, either, because our local store tends to be a mess and the parking lot overcrowded. So this movie will not really change my investing or shopping patterns, but it does challenge me to reflect on the issues it raised. For that reason, I deem the movie a success: It piqued my interest and made me more interested in the debate.
But will it really engage others who are not already predisposed to viewing it? With its limited distribution and left-wing branding, it can be easy to dismiss without being seen. Judging from Wal-Mart's strong November same-store sales figure -- up 4.3%, topping the overall 3.7% gain for retailers -- the film has had little immediate impact on its core consumers so far. Whether it will spark increased public outcry or shareholder activism in the future remains to be seen.
Fool contributor S.J. Caplan still has to put away all the dishes from her Thanksgiving festivities. She does not own any companies mentioned in this article. Feel free to contact her to suggest other ways to antagonize guests at next year's dinner.