MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Weighing in on Walmart | March 7, 2011

Walmart, the world’s largest public corporation in terms of revenue, is certainly no stranger to scandal. Its employment practices and anti-union attitudes have been largely documented and criticized, its cannibalization of locally-owned food and merchandise stores is well-known, and, just last year, the company was hit with the largest class-action sex discrimination lawsuit in history — which includes more than a million plaintiffs and might cost more than $1 billion in damages. So while the latest in Walmart-related controversy might seem like nothing new for the chain itself, it still might mean more for the average consumer: according to an economic research team from North Carolina, the installation of a Walmart Supercenter in your hometown could be directly correlated with weight gain and a systematic rise in obesity.

The Montreal Gazette, concerned with the news given Walmart’s precipitous growth in Canada, explains in simplest terms the fattening phenomenon: over ten years and per 100,000 residents, the arrival of a Walmart Supercenter coincides with an average weight gain of 1.5 pounds per person and an increase in the obesity index by 2.3 percentage points — which translates into two new obese individuals within each cluster of 100 citizens. Charles Courtemanche, one of the professors behind the study, defended the statistics by underlining how Walmart offers unhealthy nutrition options at incredibly low prices. He also highlighted a sort of catalyzing effect, as the introduction of a Walmart will force other food outlets to lower their prices in turn; the consumer, therefore, can now afford more food — especially calorically-dense options — with the same amount of money. In both cases, Walmart is the culprit for weight gain and unhealthy eating behavior.

Still, Courtemanche also admits that his study is far from pinpointing the exact cause of the excess pounds present on Walmart shoppers. Perhaps there exists an exercise-related explanation, or perhaps Walmart’s pricing model — which reduces an area’s cost of processed foods much more quickly than fresh foods — is to blame. But certain numbers are undeniable: low-income families, women and those in scarcely-populated areas are most likely to put on weight, for instance, and the problem is exacerbated by the more than 150 U.S.-based Walmarts that open each year. Figures like these have inspired numerous headlines on the subject of Walmart, some less than sympathetic toward the corporation than others: “Walmart makes us fat,” wrote the Boston Globe late last year, citing social science research to back its claim.

Walmart, of course, has yet to respond to studies like Courtemanche’s — but its movement in other arenas suggests awareness of the stats, if not subconscious warfare to redirect American attention. One month ago, the company jumped on the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign — which aims to promote healthy behaviors across the country — by announcing a five-year plan to reduce the salt content in its packaged food by 25 percent and the sugar content by ten percent. Walmart also promised to remove all industrially-produced trans fats and partially-hydrogenated oils from its stores — two major ingredients in unhealthy diets — and to drop prices on healthy items. Mrs. Obama’s praise was universal: she called the move a victory for parents, families and children alike. But if the previously mentioned study is correct in its linkage of Walmart to weight gain, perhaps the corporation’s new efforts are more retroactive than preventative.

In any case, some say the fault lies with the consumer — as suggested in this video, in which Canadian Walmart customers contend that shoppers themselves have to make the right decisions regardless of low price or other motivators. But given the rampant psychological tricks in grocery stores and other food outlets, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between an individual’s free consumer will and the degree to which he or she is manipulated into specific purchasing behaviors.

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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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