Undercover Walmart Pricing Sting: Is Processed Cheaper?

A Walmart pricing undercover investigation has revealed some interesting aspects of the retail monolith’s cost strategies — including a look at how Americans often say processed food is unfortunately cheaper than produce and raw ingredients.

Reporter Tracie McMillan’s Walmart pricing research was part of a larger look into American food pricing and habits for a book titled The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table.

McMillan discussed her Walmart undercover discoveries with Splendid Table — explaining how in part she intended to look at areas in which inner-city residents often have little access to fresh foods and ingredients, often called “food deserts.”

She says that while she was surprised at some of her findings (such as that the produce she saw in her work being priced competitively to processed items some of the time), the institutions she probed also have a long way to go to make fresh veggies and fruit a stronger part of inventory.

McMillan spoke of being tasked as she worked at Walmart with tossing hundreds of pounds of fresh asparagus that never made it to shelves, saying that retailers are often unable to efficiently move highly perishable items through their stocks:

“The most interesting thing I cottoned onto in my work at Walmart was just that there’s this very strong narrative we hear about corporate efficiencies and how everything works like this clean, well-oiled machine. At least in the Walmart I was at, that completely broke down when it came to produce.”

She adds:

“It just was this very interesting lesson in both how difficult and tricky it is to manage a produce section right. If you think about it, somebody has to be on top of the 300 to 500 items that are all dying at different rates in front of you. We talk so much about wanting to love your farmer and know your farmer, but I came out of this feeling like we really should know and love our produce managers. That’s a really difficult job and it’s incredibly important for us.”

You can read McMillan’s Walmart pricing interview (as well as fascinating bits about agricultural workers) with Splendid Table by clicking here.