Published on 12/01/11

Economics course studies the value of Walmart

By April Reese Sorrow

Do you hate shopping at Walmart? A lot of people do. But nearly every American has shopped in one of the stores of this multi-billion dollar enterprise. A University of Georgia professor is using this controversy to introduce students to economics and help them become informed consumers in "Walmart: Good or Evil," a seminar course offered by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“Walmart is the most sued company in the world with a new lawsuit filed every hour,” said Jeff Dorfman, an economist and professor with CAES and instructor of the course. “Because a lot of people hate Walmart, there is a lot of information out there to study. This topic lets students learn how to independently evaluate claims they see in the news and search for the other side of the story. For each topic we cover, we examine the pro and the con of the argument.”

Walmart earned $14.3 billion in profits in 2009, while keeping prices discounted an average of 10 percent over those charged at other big box stores. But, wages are lower too, an average of 5 percent, and insurance is too expensive for workers to afford.

“It looks like prices have been lowered more than wages have been reduced, but we talk about the trade-off and the effect,” Dorfman said.

Walmart has been also accused of running small, family-owned businesses out of business and changing laws of supply and demand by flooding the market with inexpensive items imported from other countries. On the other hand, Walmart’s green initiatives have resulted in less waste across the industry. A call for 5 percent less packaging forced changes that impacted everyone.

“If changes have to be made for Walmart, they will be fixed for everyone because Walmart has the power to make people change,” Dorfman said.

The Walmart seminar at UGA is one of more than 300 seminars offered as part of the new First-year Odyssey program. Freshman seminars are designed to introduce students to academic life at UGA. Small classes allow freshmen to engage with faculty and other first-year students while learning about the university's unique academic culture.

The goal is to get freshmen integrated into the university quicker and give students more one-on-one time with faculty members. Odyssey courses were offered for the first time this fall. Classes are limited to 15-18 students.

"The important thing is to engage (the students), but more importantly for me is to have them start thinking on their own and know that it is OK to question what they read and interpret what they see and hear," Dorfman said.

Freshmen are required to choose one seminar. What attracts them to "Walmart: Good or Evil?"

Hunter Cole, a freshman majoring in biology, chose the class because “Walmart is involved in everyone’s life,” he said.

“This class opens your eyes to the major effect Walmart has on our society,” Cole said. “I’m amazed at how much people don’t like it but they go there and spend their money.”

Jasmine Erves, also a biology major, said the class gives her “a different perspective on economics.”

“I spend a lot of time at Walmart and I want to know what I am investing my money in,” Erves said.

While her visits have lessened since the start of class, she admits to still shopping at Walmart. “I think I am punishing Walmart, but they are still coming out on top,” Erves said.

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.

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