Unrest in the Aisles

Walmart in China

The first time UO sociologist Eileen Otis walked into a Walmart, she was far from home—Kunming, China, to be exact. She was immediately struck by how greatly the Chinese version of the massive retailer differed from its American counterpart.

For starters, she was surrounded by a vast array of fresh local foods, including aquamarine tanks full of turtles and other sea life, open vats of fresh whole fish, and large barrels brimming with great varieties of rice—inventory she wouldn't expect to find on the shelves in America.

Then there was the store’s location in Kunming, the modern capital city and transportation hub of China’s southern Yunnan province. The Walmart was integrated into a shopping mall, instead of a stand-alone “box” store like Walmarts on US soil. The marketing appeared to target middle-class shoppers rather than lower-income ones, because Walmart is unable to compete with prices set by locally owned discount stores in China, says Otis.

But most interesting to Otis was the composition of the store’s workforce. Dozens of energetic vendors, all hawking different products, crowded the main floor. She describes the scene as reminiscent of the sample carts scattered through the aisles at Costco, except with dozens more vendors. She discovered that, unlike Costco, the sales agents were employed by different companies—none of them Walmart—to drive sales of everything from shampoo to cosmetics to holiday decorations.

The firms that sell products in Walmart hire and dispatch sales workers to the store's aisles and the sales floors of other big retailers. The firms pay Walmart a nominal sum to accept their promoters. Their supervision is the responsibility of department managers—many of whom are overworked, with little time to oversee the sales agents.

When Otis came across the situation with Walmart workers in Kunming, she was intrigued by the unusual arrangement and wanted to know more, especially given Walmart is the largest employer in the US and one of the largest in the world. In 1991, after reaching what Otis calls its “saturation point” in the US, Walmart expanded to China, where it has become a massive force. It is now that country’s second largest retailer, with over 400 stores and hundreds of thousands of workers, directly and indirectly employed.

As Otis dug deeper into the issue, she grew increasingly interested in the interplay between Walmart and the independent sales agents. The issue became her current research project. Otis is writing a full-length book examining how Chinese workers are interacting with one of the world’s largest companies.

“I started this research project because I am interested in understanding the labor conditions at one of the world’s largest employers and wanted to learn more about how these workers have challenged, accommodated, or reshaped Walmart’s labor practices in China,” says Otis, who studies work economy and organizations, among other subjects.

One of Otis’ first observations was that the vendors are primarily rural migrants and women. She noticed a contrast between these sales agents and Walmart’s official cashiers, greeters, stockers,