On Thursday, June 7, ITVS will present Store Wars, an assertive program that explores what happens when the mega-store Wal-Mart comes to town. This hour-long program will speak to millions who have seen a Wal-Mart arrive and radically alter their neighborhood; it will also speak to millions of others, many who are unaware that Sam Walton’s mega store is coming to their neighborhood soon, like it or not. Store Wars covers the fallout that occurs when a large corporation—Wall-Mart—decides to open a new store in one small town—Ashland, Virginia.

Wal-Mart and everything that comes with it—urban sprawl, jobs, traffic, tax revenues, and reduction in local businesses—provokes strong feelings for and against it. Some people love the low prices and one-stop shopping. Others despise its low-paying jobs and separation from the community. Several facts should be noted:

  • Over 100 million people shop at Wal-Mart per week in the U.S.
  • Wal-Mart opens a new store every two-business days.
  • Wal-Mart expands to one new country per year.
  • With $160 billion in revenues, Wal-Mart’s yearly income surpasses IBM and Microsoft—combined.

In order to maintain this level of earnings, expansion into communities like Ashland is necessary, even though other Wal-Marts are only ten-minutes away.

Ashland, Virginia is a small town of 7200, slightly north of Richmond. Store Wars is narrated by long time resident, Rosie Shalff, making this portrait of a small town drama intimate. She introduces the viewer to Mayor Tommy Herbert, who presents himself as both reasonable and neutral on this issue, and Mary Leffler, a local business owner who gathers the anti-Wal-Mart forces into a group called the "Pink Flamingoes." Other actors on the scene include Jay Weinberg, a Wal-Mart lawyer, and Al Norman, a consultant from Sprawl-Busters. All of these players, along with concerned citizens, business owners, and town council members, line-up and face one another over one central question: should Wal-Mart be allowed to come to the Ashland community?

Photo by Robert Gassie

In round one, Wal-Mart presents an offer that is immediately met with a number of objections. The color and size of the store will stick out, the cost of new roads will be excessive, and the traffic plan is inefficient. Mayor Herbert and Councilman Stewart Reid visit the town of Tappahannock, Virginia to gage the economic impact of Wal-Mart on another community. Here, a number of family businesses, operating in the community for years, have gone bankrupt. This has a number of consequences. Local businesses kept their money in local banks and invested their money locally; business owners also volunteered for rescue squads and fire departments. The social fabric of Tappahannock seems threatened by these changes. The Pink Flamingos bring in Al Norman of Sprawl-Busters for expert advice on how to fight their battle. He informs them of the possibility of Wal-Mart coming to Ashland, staying long enough to drive out local competition, and then abandoning the town. Residents would then be forced to shop at another mega-store in Richmond, and the Ashland store would become one of over 300 buildings that Wal-Mart has left empty. In the first round, Wal-Mart loses. The planning board votes against the necessary re-zoning and the anti-store forces celebrate a victory. But everyone knows it’s only a temporary respite.

In round two, Wal-Mart meets the original objections and offers a more attractive package to the town. They also bring out their big guns, publish full-page ads in the local paper, and cozy up to the town council. The vocal dissent, however, remains firm and far outnumbers pro-mega-store supporters at town meetings. When the re-zoning is approved at a town-planning meeting, it is clearly a setback, but only the town council has the power to make a final decision. At this point, though, the plot thickens considerably. Before a vote can take place, local elections must be held. The elections become a referendum on the Wal-Mart issue and to make matters even more contentious, the current town council—win or loose—will have the power to decide the issue during a lame duck session. The situation has the potential of leaving bad feelings among town members for years to come.

I’m not going to divulge the ending, but it’s more that worth sticking around for. Micha Peled has done a good job listening to everyone’s side of the story, though it is doubtful that Wal-Mart will call the coverage fair. Wal-Mart would rather leave unmentioned most of the following items:

  • Wal-Mart offers health care packages to full-time workers, but the cost is too expensive for most employees.
  • Full-time employees are paid between $6 and $7.50 per hour and on average take home less than $200 dollars per week.
  • The turnover rate is so high that Wal-Mart hires nearly 550,000 workers—or half of its workforce—each year.
  • Wal-Mart is ranked last among retailers in charitable contributions.
  • 85% of Wal-Mart’s merchandize is purchased overseas, some of it from Third World sweatshops.
  • Hundreds of musical artists must create a second "clean" recording in order to have their CDs displayed in Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart would like to convince us that the majority of Ashland really wants the mega-store to come to town. It would like to convince us that every Wal-Mart is filled with shoppers because of low prices and convenience, not because it has driven other businesses out. Store Wars does not argue the point. It simply shows that Wal-Mart uses considerable resources, pushing its corporate weight, to bring a new store to one small town in Virginia, regardless of whether it is wanted. This is superb journalism, thoroughly covering an issue that will continue to affect millions of people in hundreds small towns throughout the United States for the foreseeable future.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.


Micha X. Peled—Director/Producer/Writer
Allen Moore—Photography
Monica Z. Lam—Associate Producer
Bob Silverthorne—Sound
Ken Schneider—Editor

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