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STORE WARS: When Wal-Mart Comes To Town
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Chat Transcript

The following is the transcript of the PBS chat on June 8, 2001, about the issues tackled in the film STORE WARS: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town. Micha X. Peled, the film's producer and director, Al Norman, founder of Sprawl-Busters and Keith Morris, Community Relations Manager for Wal-Mart, Inc., participated.

pbs_host: We're ready to begin! On behalf of PBS and ITVS, I'd like to welcome our guests: Micha Peled, director of the PBS film STORE WARS: WHEN WAL-MART COMES TO TOWN; Al Norman, founder of the group Sprawl Busters, and Keith Morris, Community Relations Manager for Wal-Mart, Inc. Thank you for joining us.

Micha Peled: I'm often asked as an opening question why I made this film, and I made this film because I read about the impact of Wal-Mart and big-box chains on small town America, and I was stunned by the enormity of it, and by the fact that so little of it is reported in the media. When I started researching and found out that there are hundreds of towns around the country that have been battling to stop a big-box store from coming to their towns, I realized that there is real story to tell. And that is what my film is about.

Keith Morris: Good afternoon, I appreciate the opportunity to take part in this event and appreciate everyone taking their time to join us today.

Al Norman: I've spent the last eight years traveling across the country at the invitation of citizens and neighbors who are upset by the dramatic change in their communities from over-saturation of giant retail stores. Ashland, Virginia is a very typical story of the deep emotion and frustration that citizens encounter when they challenge developers and large corporations. I hope everyone will see some piece of America in the story about Ashland, Virginia.

russ_kamm: Nationally, what is the percentage of locally owned establishments to the total? Do you know if this percentage varies much from city to city? Which retail sector has the most chains vs. locally owned stores?

Al Norman: I don't have any statistic about how many locally owned business exist compared to national chains. It's hard to define that question. But it's clear that over the past 30 years thousands upon thousands of mom and pop entrepreneurs have died, even regional chains and national chains like Montgomery Ward have been ground into dust by a few major retail corporations. The Wal-Mart quote that I like the best came from one of their top executives: "At Wal-Mart we make dust, our competitors eat dust".

Keith Morris: Mr. Norman just stated that he has no facts with him in respect to the question...but yet has placed blame apparently on Wal-Mart which is certainly not a factual reality. When any business, large or small, closes, there are countless reasons. Online shopping, regional malls, lack of good customer service in some cases possibly, shopping hours, some stores aren't open Sunday, they close at 5 PM during the week when most people are still at work. So if we are placing blame on a store's closure, let's look at the facts instead of relying on emotion and fear.

Micha Peled: I think we have to be careful not to place all the blame on Wal-Mart for a very complex socioeconomic dynamic. But I would like to just mention two facts that are reported in my film. The first one is that on the average a Wal-Mart store gets 84 percent of its business from existing stores. And that is very understandable, because people don't just suddenly start buying more tomatoes or toilet paper because Wal-Mart came to town. The second fact is that Wal-Mart opens a new super center store every two business days. So every two business days we have a bunch of mom and pop stores somewhere in the country getting affected. Such a Wal-Mart store averages $1 million in sales a week. So 84 percent of that has come out of existing stores.

simbasom2001: I think it is unfortunate when I travel across the country and see all the same stores in every community. Doesn't Wal-Mart feel the same way?

Keith Morris: That's more of an emotional quality of life type of issue. Certainly if you travel to Florida on vacation, you would see hotels, restaurants, retail businesses that may also be in your same hometown. But I don't think that anyone would claim that they travel for the sole purpose of going to a restaurant or retail store or a hotel. People travel to go to a specific destination, and certainly whether or not there is a Wal-Mart, a McDonalds, a Rite Aide, a Home Depot, whether there is a corporately owned business in a given community does not make that destination any more or any less desirable.

Micha Peled: When I was in college I spent a lot of time hitchhiking across the country, and I loved to see how different and special each region was. Today, it's hard to tell the difference at all. My parents were worried that I would become a bum and then they didn't have to worry about that any more! Because part of the reason for travelling has been eliminated. My understanding is that Wal-Mart issues special roadmaps of the United States with specific instructions on how to get off the freeway to each one of their stores, encouraging RV travelers to spend the nights on Wal-Mart parking lots. So I guess if you are that type of traveler perhaps you appreciate the homogenization of America.

Al Norman: It's getting harder and harder to find "real" hometown America in this country. Americans say that they love main street, small town life. A sort of "Mayberry, U.S.A. dream". The reality is that corporate logos, like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target, have destroyed any unique sense of place in America so that the only Main Street left will be the plastic one that you find at Disney World.

Keith Morris: As far as corporate chains affecting or even ruining a community as it's been said, but let's think about this realistically. The community is not what stores there are to shop at. The community is people who live there. It's the church. It's the library. It's the museums,, the zoos, the outlets where you can take your children, the parks. Those things don't change because a corporation has a particular store in a community.

pocono_mike: What can the community ask of Wal-Mart when they enter a community...ie...grants, improvements, etc.

stgrimes3: Wal-Mart has the financial capability to locate itself in just about any town it chooses. What resources are available to local citizens and business owners who want to oppose Wal-Mart's cutthroat tactics?

Keith Morris: When a Wal-Mart store, or any business, large or small, proposes to build in a community, if they follow the guidelines that the local municipality has in place, it should be expected that that business should be allowed to proceed with its plan. In the case of Ashland, specifically, the developers' plans were revised based on feedback that was received, and at the end of this process the application that was put forth met or exceeded all the local guidelines that were in place. So it becomes an issue of following the rules and guidelines that are in place. And those rules should be consistent for all businesses. If a group doesn't like the particular name that's on a building, that doesn't change the fact that the municipalities have a set of rules and guidelines that guide development in all communities.

Al Norman: Wal-Mart is no respecter of local rules. What they can't get by regulation they try to get by litigation. For example, in Buffalo, Minnesota recently, Wal-Mart wanted to expand a store into a super store on land that was zoned for industry not commercial. When the town council voted against this expansion, Wal-Mart promptly filed a lawsuit. What citizens can ask is that Wal-Mart respect the size and the scale of their hometown. You can stop a super store with the following ten words: "Retail buildings shall not exceed 50,000 square feet in size". This is the kind of reaction big-box stores are creating in communities across America.

Micha Peled: I'm sure that Wal-Mart follows the letter of the law judicially. But sometimes the meaning of the law and the intention of the community get subverted. In my research for the film I came across the town of Warrenton, Virginia that passed a resolution just like Al Norman has just recommended. Wal-Mart and the developer got a piece of land that straddled the line between the town and the county. And their plans to place the store so that 49,900 square feet were within the town limits and the rest on county lands did respect the rules of the letter of the law.

krbuss: As to Wal-Mart not changing the nature of the community, what about its policy of not selling particular kinds of music? What happens to a community when a corporate entity monopolizes content and then censors it?

Keith Morris: The millions of customers who shop in our stores each week have told us they respect and overwhelmingly approve of the policy that we have in place. We will not sell music with explicit lyrics, but there are many other outlets where such items can be purchased, be it at other music stores, the Internet, etc.

Micha Peled: In many rural places Wal-Mart is the only outlet for music. But music is not the only problem. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Rolling Stone had issues taken off the shelves when Wal-Mart found them offensive.

drpepper52000: Tell me about a town that has been able to keep Wal-Mart out. Did Wal-Mart come back to the town and try again? Did Wal-Mart end up going to the next town over?

Al Norman: I'll tell you the story of Eureka, California. Wal-Mart in 1999 proposed building a super store on waterfront property in Eureka. When local officials blocked the proposal, Wal-Mart initiated a ballot question to approve its plan. The voters of Eureka voted 61 percent to 39 percent not to change their zoning to allow Wal-Mart in. They have not returned to Eureka, but they already had a store to the north and to the south. What people need to understand is that Wal-Mart today has nearly 400 "dead" stores on the marketplace today for sale or lease. 25 million square feet of empty space. We are drowning in sprawl glut. These are Wal-Marts that no longer served Wal-Mart's purposes as they expanded to super stores. There are 8 dead stores in Virginia today with 745,000 square feet sitting empty.

Keith: Mr. Norman has a habit of only telling one side of the story. The closed stores that he mentioned are not because of failure, but because we have outgrown some locations in communities which are also still growing. We do not have 300, 400 closed stores, which implies that are not successful, that we board up.

fgf1899: How much do you think Wal-Mart executives make? Have there ever been any successful union drives in Wal-Mart stores?

Keith Morris: There have been cases where a portion of a store, maybe the meat department of a store, had been unionized. And if I'm not mistaken, the two or three cases involved, are still going through appeals with the NLRB. In our nearly 40 years of operation our employees or associates have never felt the need for third party representation, because they are paid well, have extensive benefits for both full and part time employees, and advancement opportunities within the company.

Micha Peled: My understanding is that as soon as the meat cutters voted to unionize, Wal-Mart eliminated meat cutting from the stores in that region. I interviewed a Wal-Mart employee who recounted that on the first day on the job all the new employees were shown a video about the evils of unions. They were told they don't need unions because Wal-Mart has the Open Door policy, which allows an employee to go to a district manager if they have a problem. The employee I interviewed joked about the Open Door policy, saying, "Yeah, you open your mouth, they show you the door".

Al Norman: One Wal-Mart employee I spoke with told me the company says its culture is based on "respect for the individual". I sure hope to meet that individual one day, she said, because I never got any respect. This was a woman who had been assaulted by a fellow Wal-Mart associate.

landry1832: why is it Wal-Mart is the #1 retailer in the US then why can't they pay their employees more?????

Keith Morris: The starting wage for each of our stores is based on the dynamics of each local market. In establishing a wage we have to look at what the prevailing competitive wage is in each respective market. Now if we're hiring, and as some people would claim, we pay so poorly, how then is it possible to hire on average 250 to 300 people for each new store we open, in a very competitive environment, if we're NOT paying excellent wages with benefits? There is not a community anywhere in the country that is not experiencing record low levels of unemployment. In that environment, if you are not paying excellent wages with benefits, you won't get people in the door. And that's not a problem we are experiencing. People are choosing to work with Wal-Mart, as Fortune Magazine has noted recently, that Wal-Mart is one of the 100 best companies to work for in America.

Al Norman: The Fortune magazine poll is based on corporate executive responses, not working men and women. That's totally a phony poll. Second, Keith said prevailing wage, then said excellent wage. Which is it? Maybe Keith would like to tell us how many Wal-Mart employees last year...What is the turnover at Wal-Mart? You will never see a Wal-Mart ad bragging about their high everyday salaries. All they talk about is price, never what they pay their workers.

Keith Morris: First, I'm sure that the publishers of Fortune magazine would be very pleased to hear that Mr. Norman thinks their survey is phony. Secondly, how is it that more than one million people choose to work for Wal-Mart if things are as bad as Mr. Norman contends. It's based on fear and misinformation instead of fact.

Al Norman: What is your average turnover? That's what I asked.

Micha Peled: The figures that I have show a turnover of 70 percent of Wal-Mart employees leave within the first year. In fact, Wal-Mart hires almost half a million new people every year because of the high turnover. That's three times as many people as the U.S. military recruits. To be fair, I think that Wal-Mart's salaries are competitive compared with the rest of the discount retail industry, which is why they have no trouble finding new employees. However, this entire industry is benefiting from corporate welfare. If you are an average Wal-Mart employee, and you have two kids, your family is below the poverty line, and the community is paying the lunches of your kids in school.

Keith Morris: What factual information is that based on? Are there any statistical numbers or is this just being thrown on the table?

Micha Peled: The average employee takes home less than $250 a week from Wal-Mart. That means an annual income of around $11,000. Depending on which region of the country in which you live, you are about $2,000 below the poverty line if you have two kids.

Keith Morris: That information is completely false. To say that one isolated incident where a part-time worker might only work ten hours a week because they are a senior citizen or a college student might fall into that parameter is certainly the exception not the norm.

Al Norman: Sprawl is not defined by ownership. A locally owned business on the edge of the community located along a highway which is automobile dependent and single floor would be classic sprawl. I don't care who owns it. The fact is that most locally owned businesses are located in a concentrated, downtown local district. Wal-Mart elevated sprawl to an art form. A windowless art form.

jaharvey529: Do employees get profit sharing? Maternity benefits?

Keith Morris: Both.

Micha Peled: I was talking about the average FULL TIME employee who works 30 to 35 hours a week and still takes home only below $250 a week.

madcat624128: What happened to the "Made in the USA" campaign? Was that sold out to China?

Keith Morris: The "Made in the USA" campaign does still exist in our stores.

Al Norman: Wal-Mart is the largest single importer of Chinese made products in America. They continually come under criticism for weak controls over the sweatshops that create products for their shelves. The company continues to protest that all is well in China. But Americans know better.

jimp1811: Is it true that Sam Walton is quoted saying, "If a community does not want us there, we will go somewhere else"? If this is true, why does Wal-Mart continue to litigate in communities that do not want them?

Keith Morris: The quote was made, and I know it appears in Sam Walton's autobiography, which I believe is titled Made in America. To apply that quote to the video for perspective, which was done, there was a gentleman in the video who brought up that same question.... And the response is how should we define the community? In Ashland, should we say that a group of small business owners, who was the main source of opposition, should be defined as the voice of the entire community? In the video for example, there are many people who chose not to attend the public hearings because they felt intimidated or that it would be a lynch mob mentality if they spoke out for Wal-Mart. And that's unfortunate, but in Ashland, it's not accurate to say that the entire community did not want Wal-Mart. There was some number I saw on the Talkback section on the website which said 81 percent of Ashland residents were opposed. I don't know where that arbitrary number came from, but it certainly is not accurate to say that Ashland does not want Wal-Mart. A small group of business owners did not want Wal-Mart.

Al Norman: Wal-Mart always says that its opponents are a small, vocal minority. In Ashland the small, vocal minority of four people approved a Wal-Mart, while most citizens were outraged. A lame duck city council of four votes allowed this store to be built over the objections of most witnesses.

Micha Peled: My film also shows a local election in Ashland in which all the pro Wal-Mart candidates, including the mayor, lose. They also did exit polls during the Republican primaries, and 65 percent were against Wal-Mart. So I don't think it's fair to say that just a few merchants were against the store.

Keith Morris: Exit polls also showed that Al Gore carried the state of Florida.

drpepper52000: I wished there were further representation of folks in Ashland who wanted the Wal-Mart in town. What is Mayor Tom doing now? Has he seen the show?

Keith Morris: I can't answer that, so I'll defer to the other two panelists.

Micha Peled: Most of the film focuses on the people who participated in the public debate about Wal-Mart in Ashland. In order to bring out the pro Wal-Mart voice, I did go to one home and did an interview with a Wal-Mart supporter, which is also in the film. Tom, the previous mayor, saw the film and gave it his nod of approval, as did the attorney representing Wal-Mart in the film. I understand that some people in Ashland still don't speak to Tom ever since the vote.

Micha Peled: To find out the air date for Store Wars in your area, go to www.pbs.org/storewars and click on broadcast schedule. I can be contacted at teddybearfilms@earthlink.net.

Al Norman: There is a store war raging across America. People want to take back their community from the developers and the big corporations. Wal-Mart is not a government mandate. For more information on battles everywhere, go to www.sprawl-busters.com.

Keith Morris: The narrator in the video opened by saying "Ashland, Virginia is right on Interstate 95, the fastest growing corridor on the East Coast. Many people here work in nearby Richmond and do most of their shopping in the mall by the highway." Which explains exactly why a retailer would be interested in the site which is right near Interstate 95 across from the truck stop that brings hundreds of potential customers into Ashland every day.

pbs_host: Unfortunately, our time is up. I'd like to offer a special thanks to our guests Micha Peled, Al Norman, and Keith Morris for taking the time to participate in today's chat. Don't forget to visit the film's companion website at www.pbs.org/storewars! Thank you, everyone, for joining us.



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