Guest Column: Organics and the Wal-Mart effect

Wal-Mart recently announced it will be expanding its organic offerings at stores throughout the country. While I am glad to see more people are buying organic, and it is becoming more mainstream, I am concerned, not just for us, but for the organic farmers, the standards, and the future of the industry. Wal-Mart has a history of doing whatever it takes to get a lower price regardless of how it affects other businesses or their suppliers.

A recent documentary featured several of Wal-Mart’s vendors who stated when they could not meet the price Wal-Mart told them they would pay, Wal-Mart literally told the vendors they needed to ship their manufacturing overseas to lower their labor costs. Think about how many jobs have been lost in Rockford over the past several years. There is a trickle-down effect. When their suppliers are looking to lower their costs to meet Wal-Mart’s demands, they look for the cheapest supplies, whether it is screws or food ingredients. When Wal-Mart is their largest customer, they do what they have to do to stay in business. Their lack of ethics and disregard for local economies was demonstrated by the recent closing of Newell-Rubbermaid in Freeport.

Rubbermaid, an 86-year-old company with all manufacturing facilities located in the USA, sent a letter to all their vendors stating there would be a price increase due to an increase in the price of resin, a raw material used to make plastic. All of Rubbermaid’s customers understood the increase except Wal-Mart, Rubbermaid’s largest customer. Wal-Mart stated in a letter that if Rubbermaid increased their prices, they would pull all Rubbermaid products from their shelves. Rubbermaid tried to comply with Wal-Mart’s demands, and as a result went into financial distress, forcing them to sell out to Newell, Rubbermaid’s largest competitor. Shortly after purchasing the company, Newell moved its manufacturing facilities to Mexico and other countries, laying off hundreds of people in the Freeport office. Ironically, Freeport is in the process of building a new Super Wal-Mart, and Rockford is building their fourth store. You could say, in a sense, Wal-Mart creates its own market by creating poverty and job loss so people can’t afford to shop anywhere else. It is a vicious cycle, and there is only one way to stop it. This is only one example how this company has negatively affected this area; I am certain there are more.

While their prices are low now, consolidation and overseas production will eventually lead to increased prices due to lack of competition or lack of supply. This has already been demonstrated in England when a large chain grocery store came in and undercut all the local independent stores, putting them out of business. Once the competition was gone, they then raised their prices, driving up the cost of food. What do you think would happen if Wal-Mart was the only retailer left? … that is their goal. Whether you realize it or not, when you shop at any store, you are funding their business practices, good or bad. Businesses cannot survive without their customers’ support. Choosing where you spend your money can be, and sometimes is, more powerful than voting.

Since the Rockford Register Star ran the article in last week’s paper announcing Wal-Mart’s organic expansion, our sales have decreased by one-third. I only hope it is temporary while everyone is curious to see what they have. Unfortunately, it is tough to compete with a company of this magnitude. We are a one-store operation and do not have the buying power of these larger national chains. When you research the company, you find that Wal-Mart is not always cheaper than their competition. Everyone assumes it is because of the nature of the store… and Wal-Mart takes full advantage of this.

Managers who were interviewed said they placed inexpensive products, priced below cost, on the end caps to lure people down the aisle. Once down the aisle, customers usually bought one of the more expensive items featured, which is many times priced higher than the competition (they also have very poor price accuracy ratings—84.6% of Illinois Wal-Mart stores failed to meet federal price accuracy standards.) The manager who was interviewed said the trick is getting people down the aisles. It is nothing more than psychology, and Wal-Mart is very good at it. Last time I stopped in to see what they had (I refuse to shop there), I noticed that our kiwis were less expensive, and they looked better! Buyer beware.

The difference between us and other stores is that we believe in what we are doing and are working to keep organic standards high, unlike Wal-Mart, who has been lobbying Congress for quite some time now to lower the standards. This store has been a dream of ours for nearly a decade. We believe in supporting local farmers and the local economy. We live here, too! We want Rockford to be a better place. It is for this reason we buy our office supplies and most other supplies at locally-owned businesses instead of national chains. We support our schools and our community, not just in lip service. We are not looking to get rich by having this store. I am perfectly happy driving my 10-year-old minivan. We care about having good quality food that is not contaminated with GMOs and is grown on a family farm, not by some corporate behemoth. We want a nice, stable community, now and in the future.

For more information about Wal-Mart, their lack of ethics and their impact on our communities, please visit and for a fun, 60-second spoof about how they treat their workers, go to

Karen King is the owner of Choices Natural Market, specializing in natural and organic meat and produce, at 6551 E. Riverside Blvd., Rockford, phone (815) 282-1861 or

From the July 5-11, 2006, issue

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