It was social justice expressed as art, a graduate student's attempt at tying belief and practice together. Like all art, it aimed to stir questions in the mind of the observer, rattle the cage a bit. The rattling in this case consisted of a series of interactive push-button signs: Push for low wages and no health insurance. Push if you think Jesus would shop at Wal-Mart.
After crafting the signs, Walter Biffle (pictured above) carried them to the nearest Wal-Mart and posted them strategically where shoppers would chance upon them. That was all he had intended to do until he spotted a sign that Wal-Mart itself had posted in the lobby.
"Wal-Mart," it read, "is working for everyone." Below that declaration was a point-by-point rebuttal against criticism that had been leveled against the retail giant by labor-union-funded organizations such as Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up, Wal-Mart!
"It really perturbed me," Biffle says. Inspiration struck. He drove home, grabbed a white T-shirt and with a permanent marker wrote the words "total crap" with an arrow pointing to the side. He returned to the store with a friend who photographed him, with the T-shirt on, standing alongside Wal-Mart's pro-worker slogan.
"We were kind of scared about doing it, actually," he recalls. "But a lot of shoppers laughed as they walked by. Some gave us the thumbs-up even though, granted, they still went in to shop." It wasn't long, however, before the impromptu photo op attracted the attention of store management and they were told to leave.
"This happened in Massachusetts, but I'm a good Southern boy," the Tennessee native says. "I don't like causing scenes." He was in the parking lot, considering whether to ask if he would still be able to shop there, when the police arrived.
Banned from Wal-Mart
"I was henceforth banned from all Wal-Mart stores, worldwide, forever," Biffle says. He has the no trespass order, written by the officers responding to the scene, to prove it. For the art student on a mission, it is more badge of honor than punishment. "I had previously, against my better wishes, gone to Wal-Mart knowing that whatever I needed would be cheap. But now I had imposed on myself an inability to do that."
He immediately called his long-time partner, Alison Piepmeier, and told her what happened.
No stranger herself to the necessity of taking a stand on controversial issues, Piepmeier, an assistant professor and director of women's and gender studies at the College of Charleston, was thrilled.
"It was a really great art project," she says. "He had it all documented. It was an ideal thing to have happen because that's how he was thinking of it: as a social process." She followed up his banishment from Wal-Mart with a personal decision to boycott the store.
"As a corporation, I think they are not particularly ethical, in terms of not providing good health care for their employees, so that many of them are on public assistance," she says, explaining what factored into her personal refusal to shop there. "And, of course, the sexual discrimination class action lawsuit they are facing now is very relevant to me."
"I'm in the business of making things that last forever," says Biffle, whose MFA is in wood/furniture design. "What Wal-Mart does with pricing and supply contributes to a disposable culture where, for example, you buy a bookshelf that falls apart within a year. You could have something that is about longevity, an heirloom kind of thing, but Wal-Mart can make it so you almost can't afford not to buy their mass-produced shelf. I have a hard time separating things. To me, all of this is related and all of it contributes to our problems."
Boycotts and bans have long been just part of business as usual for the retail leviathan. Those who protest against the business practices of the company have — for just as long — been dismissed as a vocal minority; elitists who do not have to rely on the (always) low prices that have long been Wal-Mart's primary selling point.
There is some consolation for Wal-Mart in being the largest corporation in the world, with over $300 billion in annual sales, and two new Supercenters opening every three days, more or less. The corporation is so preposterously huge that economists have coined a term, the Wal-Mart effect, for the Category 5 fury with which it smashes into towns, realigning economic and retail channels around it.
Perpetual criticism from watchdog agencies and labor unions and a general perception of being the Snidely Whiplash of American business, after all, have had little if any impact on consumer willingness to flock to the aisles for the proverbial 'always low prices.'
"Consumer boycotts have a tough time working in this country, period," says John Dicker, a Colorado-based journalist who literally, in The United States of Wal-Mart, wrote the book on why so many people take a stand against the company. "People who are shopping at Wal-Mart really don't view it as a political decision. They need groceries and in areas where people are living on a budget, with a rising energy crisis, it is hard to argue that low prices don't matter."
Even many of those who make the personal choice to boycott or be banned from the store, such as Piepmeier and Biffle, agree that aligning their shopping habits with their political views might be much more difficult if they were in a different financial position.
"Because we are able to shop at slightly more expensive locally-owned places, we have more options available to us," Piepmeier says. "Sometimes people will use that argument as a way of saying therefore we shouldn't be opposed to Wal-Mart, since people that don't have enough money need Wal-Mart. I'm not going to say everybody has to stop shopping there. But I believe that because we can afford not to, that it is important for us not to. If we kept shopping at Wal-Mart, it would just help perpetuate this cycle of them moving into other places and shutting down all the other options. If we don't give them our money, then we help keep these other options available."
Those other options may have better chances than first glance suggests.
While it's questionable how much boycotts and criticism have effected Wal-Mart's policies, what is less arguable is that the last several years, with rising energy costs and decreased spending power among the paycheck-to-paycheck crowd, have taken a significant toll on Wal-Mart.
It may be difficult to imagine what could shake an entity that, last year, enjoyed $11.2 billion in profits and is the largest private employer in the United States. Consider, though, what skyrocketing fuel prices mean for the owner of the largest private trucking fleet in the world, especially when paired with paper-thin profit margins reliant on high volume sales and decreased cash on hand among their traditional clientele. Not to mention increasing legislative and regulatory pressure regarding health care policies and labor practices.
The national health care cost crisis is the front on which the most heated battles are being fought. An estimated 46 million Americans are without health care coverage. Among them are many who work either full- or part-time jobs yet simply cannot afford employer health plans because of unaffordable premiums and deductibles too high to be of help to the working poor.
To many critics, including Chris Kofinis, communications director for Wake Up, Wal-Mart!, a consumer watchdog group funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the real issue at stake is the difference between talk of change and real change that improves the lives of workers.
"There is a bigger problem here than simply making people eligible [for health insurance]," says Kofinis. "How is a part-time worker who makes, on average, six to seven dollars an hour going to afford coverage? How are they going to meet their deductible?"
The way the typical scenario works out, according to Kofinis, is that workers end up on Medicaid or other public assistance programs; essentially, taxpayers end up subsidizing large corporations who don't want to do their fair share for the health care needs of their workers.
In Maryland, "fair share" legislation, scheduled to go into effect in 2007, will require any company with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least eight percent of its payroll on health benefits or, if they choose not to do so, to pay the difference to the state in order to subsidize Medicaid. As many as 30 other states are in the process of moving forward on this issue as well.
Wal-Mart cried foul when Maryland passed the bill in January of this year. There was much talk of the unfairness of state legislation targeting a private corporation. It should be mentioned that there are four companies in Maryland who employ enough people to fall under the "fair share" rule. Of the four, three already spend more than eight percent of payroll on employee health.
So Wal-Mart stands alone in being impacted by the change.
Those who watch corporate America agree that economic and regulatory options trump sermons. "When Wal-Mart opponents engage in boycotts that are high on moral fervor and low on savvy politics, the results are pretty lame," says Dicker. "I'm very curious to see what's going to happen now that this legislation has passed [on the cost burden of employee health care]. It's a very interesting situation because the debate isn't just about this one store."
What is interesting is that, lately, much of the talk of new ways of doing business is not coming from outside protesters but from the company itself.
At recent press conferences, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has spoken in terms of sustainability, green energy, doubling the fuel efficiency of the world's largest private trucking fleet, and ecofriendly plastics. Cost-cutting and profit may well be the spur, according to some critics, but even so.
"They're retooling their trucks to make them more fuel efficient and investing in more environmentally friendly stores," Dicker adds. "I think that's all good. Wal-Mart critics should take that as a victory instead of merely saying it is just window dressing."
Are we at the cusp of a new line of thinking in the retail leviathan's history? Are we about to see a kinder, gentler Wal-Mart?
If so, it comes with a brand new marketing strategy.
Wal-Mart goes upscale?
It is no accident that, in the greater Charleston area and elsewhere, Wal-Mart Supercenters are breaking ground closer and closer to more affluent neighborhoods in Mt. Pleasant and in West Ashley, off of Bees Ferry Road, where the new store is poised to star as the central feature of the West Ashley Circle.
It is part of an aggressive upscale move, paired with an interest in offering designer fashion and high-end electronics.
Eight-page ad inserts in Vogue are a whole new thing for the retailer. But can any amount of public relations funding and advertising make Wal-Mart seem like the place to go for chic fashion at an affordable price? Should Gwynn's of Mt. Pleasant be nervous?
"Their ads show them at a kind of crossroads right now," says Dicker. "The tax policies of the administration they overwhelmingly supported, the Bush administration, are putting more disposable income, in the form of tax cuts, into the pockets of people who are not traditional Wal-Mart customers. Their core customer has less money to spend, so they are doing things to make themselves more relevant to people who do have more money to spend."
It is an open question whether their strategy will make the hoped-for inroads among more affluent shoppers.
"This is a company that is desperate to go after Target's customers — the higher income demographic," Kofinis says. "They are deeply concerned over what they see as a loss in market share. That is why they are spending all this money cleaning up their public image. They realized that public image is becoming entrenched; the image of them as a dirty company, dirty employers. And they are desperate to change it."
But how can you not shop there?
"Wal-Mart became kind of a community center in my home town [Cookeville, Tennessee]. When you were bored, you went to Wal-Mart," says Piepmeier. "It was rare to be in Cookeville and not go to Wal-Mart at least once."
"It was when the Super Wal-Mart came in that the other stores in town began closing. Because then, it was the store and the locally-owned stores closed. They just couldn't compete with the prices. But at the same time, I don't remember there being a lot of controversy. People seemed excited rather than concerned about the effect it was going to have on the community."
"I have not had any problems not shopping at Wal-Mart," she adds. "Now, that's partly because we've lived in cities. When we lived in Nashville, there were lots of other places to shop. In Charleston, there's a Target. In Cookeville, it would be trickier. You would have to make more of a concerted effort."
Biffle himself can speak of the downside of not shopping there, by choice or by banishment, when you are living in a part of the country where it is Wal-Mart's way or the highway.
"In graduate school, I noticed that if I wanted typing paper, printer cartridges, an extension cord, anything — I found myself having a hard time finding it," Biffle says. "The nearest shopping mall was 30 miles away."
He even found himself having to give up his favorite frozen food, Totino's Pizza.
"At Wal-Mart, they sold for something like 99 cents," he says. "It's the great staple of food when you're in school, and here, Wal-Mart had bought up so much of it and sold it at such a low price that none of the other stores in town could afford to stock it."
So there you have it. Stop protesting or no pie.
David Shipler, author of The Working Poor: Invisible in America, sees it this way: Nobody who works hard should be poor in America.
The reality, of course, is that a great many people are in precisely that situation. Those who oppose Wal-Mart most passionately point to the retailer as representative of a root cause of this phenomenon.
"What we are seeing across the country, both in and outside of retail, is businesses realizing they can do less and less for employees and get away with it, justifying it as just the way of doing business," says Kofinis. "There is a sense of fairness and equality that is being lost."
He doesn't think hope is lost, however, and points to lessons learned in watching the fall from grace of Big Tobacco.
"With Big Tobacco, people learned that these were companies that were having a significant negative impact on society and that we had to do something about it both in terms of changing consumer behavior as well as in terms of regulating corporate behavior," he says. "A similar sense of consciousness is emerging here.
"Wal-Mart talks about how many people line up for their jobs when they come to town. Yes, there are millions of people in this country who are poor and need jobs. That does not give you the right to exploit them or mistreat them."
Ready to jump on the banned wagon?
WAL-MART COMPARISON SHOP
Just how much does it cost to boycott the every day low prices of Wal-Mart? Intrepid City Paper intern Lynsy Smithson Stanley trekked all over James Island to find out through comparison shopping.