When Wal-Mart comes to town

PBS documentary examines megastore chain’s unparalleled—and unrelenting—growth

SHOPPING FOR THE MASSES: Wal-Mart set up shop on Chico’s Forest Avenue in 1994.

SHOPPING FOR THE MASSES: Wal-Mart set up shop on Chico’s Forest Avenue in 1994.

Photo by Sara Sipes

A TV near you Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town airs at 10 p.m. on Thurs day, June 7, on KIXE Channel 9.

In 1998, David Glass, the chief operating officer of Wal-Mart, outlined his company’s objective: “First we dominate North America, then South America, then Europe and Asia.” If Glass had been speaking of any other enterprise, his words might have seemed far-fetched. But Wal-Mart’s growth since 1962 has resembled a blitzkrieg.

The largest retailer in the world has 3,000 stores in the U.S. as well as chains in Britain, Germany, China, Korea, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. It opens a megastore every two days. It is the U.S.'s largest private employer, with 925,000 people on the payroll, and the second-largest employer in general after the federal government. The company also boasts the largest computer, surpassing the Pentagon’s, and the world’s largest fleet of trucks. Wal-Mart might as well appear in the dictionary under the word huge. Intractable would also be a fitting place for Wal-Mart if such lexicographical examples were used.

I know the above statistics because I just watched Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, a documentary film by Micha Peled that will air on PBS beginning June 7. Store Wars is not exactly a critique of Wal-Mart’s business practices, but it is hard to come away with a favorable view of the company, which lines its proposals with million-dollar incentives to cash-strapped towns and then threatens to move its megastore to Town B if Town Council A says no.

So the war reference is not an exaggeration. Peled’s documentary shows that part of Wal-Mart’s savvy has been to provide funds to towns in the absence of adequate state and federal money. “The only way most American towns can cover their budget today is by having big corporations like Wal-Mart come in and bring tax revenues,” said Peled in a telephone interview. “Ever since the Reagan era, American municipalities have been scrambling for additional revenue sources.”

Peled is an odd candidate for the very American story of Wal-Mart. A native of Israel, he grew up in a farm town called Ganey-Yehuda about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. His mother fled Nazi Germany. His first documentary was called Teatro Latino. His last two films examined native themes: Israeli-Palestinian relations and Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

But Peled is not unfamiliar with the U.S. He has lived here for the last 25 years and spent the first few wandering the States with Kerouac’s On the Road in hand. Ganey Yehuda means “Judas’ Garden,” and perhaps growing up in a place that connotes betrayal and struggle for land prepared him better than most for today’s American turf wars.

“I wanted to tell the story of a town that is Anywhere USA because that story has not really been told,” Peled said. In Ashland, Va., where Store Wars is set, he found that place. The town of 7,200 looks like a latter-day Norman Rockwell painting, has the only remaining Amtrak rail that stops in the middle of town, and epitomizes what’s left of small-town life.

Which is exactly why Ashland was torn asunder by Wal-Mart’s proposal to come to town. Not since the Civil War or the civil-rights movement, it seems, have Ashlanders experienced such fierce public debate. In Store Wars one can witness street protests led by a group called the Pink Flamingos, late-night discussions over homemade pies and the inevitable political maneuverings among prominent citizens and elected officials.

Act I of Store Wars ends with Ashland rejecting Wal-Mart’s offer. But with the company’s second proposal, which included a $3 million investment for road repairs as well as a variety of aesthetic improvements, the town council caved, even though the majority of Ashlanders remained opposed. Tears were shed by Pink Flamingo members; others chalked up the decision to the realities of small-town economics.

If there is an appropriate activity to preface the watching of Store Wars, it is an afternoon visit to both the local megastore and the local butcher. For the documentary illustrates just what the implications of those visits are: One offers convenience, needed jobs and the new style of American consumption; the other the shopping of the recent past, in a local retail economy, that companies like Wal-Mart tend to wipe out.

And in case you don’t have an opinion about the Wal-Mart versus mom-and-pop store debate, Store Wars offers a cast of characters who do. There is Sharon McKinley, a matronly Southerner whose husband and daughter work at Wal-Mart and who argues that the store is a boon to people with limited free time and a tight budget. There is the slithery, straight-laced Keith Morris, a Wal-Mart director of community relations, who comes to Ashland to convince the town folk of Wal-Mart’s sweet deal.

And there is Al Norman, a bearded activist and founder of a group called Sprawl Busters, who argues: “Wal-Mart operates on a saturation strategy. They place stores so close together that they become their own competition. Once everyone else is wiped out, they’re free to thin out their own stores. Wal-Mart currently has over 390 empty stores on the market today. This is a company that changes stores as casually as you or I change shoes.”

That’s America, you might say. But in the end, Micha Peled would prefer if it were not. He said he is nostalgic for the regional variety he experienced on his Kerouacan journey of the ‘70s. “I was stunned by the scope of the problem,” he said, referring to the current homogenization of American towns. “And I was stunned that until I read about Wal-Mart in a book on globalization I didn’t know anything about how the company works at all.”

Yet in his film, and in person, Peled sympathizes with towns that have fallen in with Goliaths like Wal-Mart. “They’re essentially blackmailed,” he said. “If the towns don’t take on a Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart will move their new store two miles up the road out of the town’s jurisdiction, and it will still suffer the same economic devastation.”

Store Wars also makes clear that Wal-Mart is not universally hated, as it offers low-income people needed jobs, however far they may be from providing a living wage. “It’s a vicious cycle,” said Peled. “People are earning less than a decent living and then going to shop in discount stores.”

According to research institutes like Jobs for Justice and United for a Fair Economy, one third of Wal-Mart’s employees work part-time with no benefits or job security. Many employees are limited to a schedule of less than 28 hours a week and therefore are not eligible for benefits at all. This is the other vicious cycle—of unsupportable wages—that Store Wars does not have time to tell. Nor does the film examine in much detail the race and class divisions raised by the Wal-Mart debate.

But Store Wars will be useful to people facing the same dilemmas as those experienced in Ashland. In fact, Peled has been holding public screening in places where Wal-Mart is trying to come to town. “I believe in something that Arthur Miller once said,” he said, referring to his outreach efforts. “'Every piece of art should bring news,'—and news in the broadest sense of the word.”

Store Wars, which won a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival, does brings news—the broad and disturbing sort.