Inside the Box
An investigative journalist goes undercover at Walmart
Statistics Canada reports that “retail trade” ranks first among all employment sectors in this country, accounting for 11.5 percent of the labour force. That’s 1,907,980 workers, and for seven years, I was one of them. I did the retail thing throughout my time at McMaster, continued a while afterwards, and then caught a lucky break. It couldn’t have come sooner.
Increasingly alienated those last few months, I experienced what Karl Marx called Entfremdung. It’s a common, some might say universal, disillusionment among retail workers: the higher‑ups direct the slightly less higher‑ups, who direct the next level down, and so on and so on, until eventually the orders reach the bottom — you — and any sense of ownership or agency has evaporated.
Given the proliferation of retail employees and this shared sense of estrangement, it’s no surprise that accounts of cash-register demoralization abound. See Rant of a Retailer, chronicling the tribulations of Macy May Marcus, a department store manager; Retail Hell, Freeman Hall’s account of working as a handbag salesman at Nordstrom; or Pretending You Care, a catch-all guide to withstanding retail’s trials, by Norman Feuti. For those who have experienced the real shopping-mall inferno, such titles provide sympathetic shoulders to weep into.
Written by the investigative journalist Hugo Meunier, Walmart: Diary of an Associate is a unique addition to the retail confessional subgenre. From October to December 2012, the thirty-four-year-old stepped away from his job at La Presse to take a turn as a Walmart employee in St‑Léonard, about a half-hour north of downtown Montreal. Meunier is known for journalistic stunts (like crashing Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire’s wedding), but this was his most ambitious yet.
I’ve worked as a chocolatier, video store clerk, shoe salesman, and design consultant (among other gigs), and have endless stories. I’m sure most of my companions do too. I’m also certain we’d agree that retail inflicts existential crises on the human spirit, with philosophical, psychological, sociological, and exploitive tolls all magnified by near-constant distress. In Walmart, Meunier sidelines these deeper discussions. He focuses instead on humorous, sometimes sobering observations. Among the most frightening is his account of Black Friday:
Dozens of customers were languishing outside the store. . . . As soon as the doors opened, they literally stampeded towards the electronics department, where the big sales were to be found. Some let off joyful yells of victory, others ran like sprinters.
When you’re in the trenches, it’s therapeutic, almost necessary, to poke fun at the customer. But the journalist stepping through the looking glass should do better than make a monkey out of the Walmart regular. Besides, that’s Walmart’s job.
St-Léonard has a population of 78,000, most of whom fall below the national average in education and annual income. It’s unsurprising, then, that they have access to a blue and yellow box store. Strategically, Walmart targets workaday communities far from urban centres. Even as its business model depends on a certain paucity of critical scrutiny, Walmart lays claim to nobleness: its bargains help struggling families make ends meet. Meunier wryly compares such justifications to the 2012 Quebec student protests against tuition hikes. “Protesters,” he urges, “take note! You are not the only ones fighting for social justice.”
Later, he suggests Walmart “presents a proletarian face to its customers, while operat[ing] NASA-calibre tools to pull strings in the shadows.” In the mid-1960s, the company headhunted IBM engineers, seeking out the best minds capable of exploiting emerging technologies. Then, in the 1980s, it purchased a $24-billion private satellite network to ensure perpetual contact between all stores and the head office in Bentonville, Arkansas. The Electronic Data Interchange is still in use today.
Such space-age unification, linking the Mos Eisleys of retail wastelands, may very well be the secret to success. While obscuring its Bentonville Death Star, Walmart presents a friendly, non-threatening, and — most importantly — predictable face. Plus, the prices can’t be beat! Sam Walton said the only boss is the customer, but he glossed over a commonality: we’re all individuals. Having come near the Kool‑Aid, even Meunier loses sight of this. Fifteen days into his assignment, he remarks, “I hardly ever think about my story anymore. I think about my pallets, my deliveries, my rotations, my over and my facing. I think Walmart.”
Some would suggest that nameless anonymity and corporate groupthink aren’t much to ask of the typical Walmart customer, to say nothing of the typical employee. Age plays a role here. Most of Meunier’s “colleagues” are teenagers who look at him —“the pathetic old man”— with contempt. Retail is a young sector, and this is a key ingredient of the secret sauce: one in three workers is between fifteen and twenty-four, with little experience to serve as a point of comparison. Outsiders might dismiss their concerns anyway. They’re kids, they’re not supposed to like their jobs yet, the awfulness of retail will inspire them to better themselves, and, besides, if we went through it, so should they.
Others are quick to assert that the retail worker’s plight “could be worse.” But the same can be said of anyone who isn’t dead yet. There’s always some way to aggravate a given situation — promoting a two-for-one sale generally works. Regardless, it’s fallacious to compose a hierarchy of misery.
Meunier might have gone deep with such rich fodder. He doesn’t. So there’s no sense of why his book matters to readers who aren’t already sympathetic. There’s no real analysis of what it means to be a Walmart customer, aside from cheap remarks comparing them to cows. He doesn’t even follow up with his co-workers after the experiment concludes. And ending the book with a trite adage, as he does, is just cringeworthy: “To have a world in common, you have to be able to put yourself in the other’s shoes.”
A scattershot structure is partly to blame for the lack of depth. Meunier’s historical and reflective material is relatively brief, interspersed seemingly at random among journal entries. Ultimately, he never experiences the full effect of retail’s dehumanization, which results in inauthentic breeziness. Trust me, veterans don’t talk like this.
Meunier’s biggest weakness is also his biggest advantage: he has an end in sight all along. Three months in, and he’s out. Such luxury isn’t afforded the honestly employed, whose drudgery may well continue indefinitely. While Meunier recognizes the disconnect, asserting he “would undoubtedly see things [differently] if a big, well-paying — and unionized — job didn’t await me when this experience was over,” the disparity remains. He played a game of chicken while sitting in an ejection seat.
That’s not to say critical perceptions are altogether lacking. Following his undercover operation, Meunier makes a pilgrimage to the hometown of Walmart’s head office. The company’s “mark is everywhere,” Meunier says of Bentonville. “The entire city seems to have adopted the humility and frugality of Sam Walton.” But he spends little time dissecting Walmart’s economic and social implications for Canada. With over 80,000 employees in 411 stores in every province and territory except Nunavut, Walmart is one of the largest private sector employers in this country.
Walmart: Diary of an Associate was originally published in French in 2015. Reflecting in the English edition on the original’s impact, Meunier suggests his “infiltration caused a stir.” But he doesn’t offer a full explanation. I suspect this is because no changes came of it at all; I certainly didn’t hear of it when I was fighting the good fight. Over the past four years, Canada’s retail sales have increased by millions and millions, and the industry has added 300,000 more retail employees to the workforce. And Walmart? It’s built seventeen new Canadian stores — and 313 worldwide. Unlike its prices, it’s not rolling back any time soon.