Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town

This one-hour documentary follows the conflict that polarizes a small town when Wal-Mart wants to build a mega-store there. In the U.S., Wal-Mart opens a new mega-store every two business days, creating 150 Store Wars stories every year. It is the story of the impact of discount chain stores on American society.

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This is the story of Ashland, VA, population 7200, where the grocery store allows charge accounts and the doctor makes house calls. School bus drivers and morticians serve on the Town Council and residents are fiercely proud of their small-town character. Now, this gentle way of life is jolted by the prospect of a Wal-Mart supercenter on the edge of town.

Store Wars follows events in Ashland over a one-year period, from the first stormy public hearing that galvanizes residents’ opposition till the Town Council takes a final vote on the proposed Wal-Mart store. Arguments for the store (tax revenues, low prices, jobs) and against it (destroys small town character, traffic, low-end jobs) are articulated and hotly debated. The cast of characters includes the mayor and Town Council members who will eventually make the decision, Wal-Mart representatives and the “Pink Flamingos,” the grassroots citizen group opposed to the store.

Between episodes in the town, sequences shot elsewhere introduce Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, the largest employer in the U.S. and a truly global company. The famous Wal-Mart cheer, chanted enthusiastically by hourly associates and top executives alike, gives voice to the company’s dynamic spirit. The company’s labor standards and its cultural censorship practices are explored.

The protracted conflict is staged in two rounds. After being turned down the first time, Wal-Mart comes back with a more generous proposal. It also mounts a PR campaign of full-page ads in the local press and television commercials. The Flamingos hold street demonstrations with “No Sprawl Y’All” signs. The town council is divided and accusations fly back and forth.

The final decision takes place in a tumultuous Town Council meeting which lasts way past midnight one year after the first public hearing took place. The outcome will determine whether Store Wars is a story about the triumph of a determined group of citizens, or a parable of our times about the inevitable expansion of a truly global corporation.

Store Wars does not single out Wal-Mart, but rather highlights its position as the icon of the Big Box industry. While offering a critical view of this industry, the film presents fairly all viewpoints on this controversial issue.