By now you’ve certainly seen the “Walmart Challenge” commercials that have been running on TV for more than a year now. “Real Moms” stock up at a local grocery store, then are whisked off to Walmart to buy the very same items – invariably for much less. “Bring your last grocery receipt into Walmart and compare the prices,” the ads conclude. “You’ll see for yourself!”
Many viewers have wondered, though – who are these “real Moms” exactly? Actors? Walmart employees? Did they really save as much as Walmart says they did? Did Walmart tell them what to buy? Did Walmart, as one competitor speculated, “encourage” the Moms to choose groceries they knew would be cheaper at Walmart? Well, no one’s actually thought to track down some Walmart Moms and ask them.
Coupons in the News reached out to several shoppers featured in Walmart commercials across the country, to ask what really went on behind the scenes. What they have to say, answers a lot of questions – but, in some cases, they raise new ones as well.
Laura of Woodstock, Georgia took the “Walmart Challenge” in a commercial that was shot in April 2012. That was very early in the ad campaign, and the commercial that aired is a somewhat more primitive version of the formula we’ve come to know – there were no side-by-side itemized receipts, no percentage savings shown at the end and the competitor wasn’t even named. By May of 2012, when Joyce appeared in an ad shot in Medina, Ohio, those features were front and center.
Despite their locations hundreds of miles apart, and their experiences shopping different local grocery stores, both women had similar stories to tell about how their moment in the spotlight came to be. Each happened to learn that a casting agency was looking for “real moms” for a TV commercial. The typical casting call asked for “normal-looking Middle America types” who “have a big personality and are able to give good, authentic reactions on camera.” The ad campaign was just starting out in early 2012, so neither Laura nor Joyce even knew what the commercial was for, at first. “I had to audition just telling about myself and my shopping habits,” Joyce said. “I always shopped at Giant Eagle but also go to Walmart depending on what I am looking for.” Laura was also asked about her shopping habits. “I believe I did share at the audition that I typically shop at Kroger and Publix,” she said.
Eventually, each woman got word that she had been selected to take part in a taping. Laura went to a Kroger, Joyce to a Giant Eagle. “Two gals from Arkansas (Walmart’s corporate headquarters) told me to buy what I would typically buy for a spring week for my family,” Laura said. “I bought a mix of name brands and store brands.” The Walmart crew paid for her groceries and headed to a nearby Walmart to begin comparing prices. “I was told to select just 11 or so items and shop as I normally would,” Joyce said. “They had a woman with me but only to make sure I kept to my item number.”
Once the crews compared prices and decided which items would be featured in the ads, it was time to turn on the cameras and start rolling. Joyce ended up saving 15% at Walmart. Laura’s savings percentage wasn’t shown on camera, but “I got to go home with my groceries!” she said.
Two real Moms, two real shopping trips, two similar experiences – seems straightforward enough. But like any kind of reality TV, just how real is “real”?
In November 2012, St. Louis-based grocery chain Schnucks complained to Walmart about the accuracy of the ad campaign. As first reported by Coupons in the News, Schnucks called the ads “misleading and deceptive” (read: “Schnucks to Walmart: End ‘Inaccurate’, ‘Misleading’, ‘Unlawful’ Ads”). Among Schnucks’ complaints: the ads “fail to explain how the persons shown in them were chosen or found” and “Walmart’s admission that ‘customers were compensated for their participation’ also raises serious questions as to whether Walmart or its agents either guided (customers’) purchases or cherry-picked (their) receipts from among others in an effort to manufacture the largest price differential.”
Neither Laura nor Joyce was asked, and neither volunteered, how much they were paid for their participation. But some casting calls have indicated that those selected would receive “a $500 gift card and the experience of a lifetime.” And that raised Schnucks’ suspicions. “The ‘real’ consumer knew that she could get a $500 gift card, but only if selected to be in the commercial,” its complaint to Walmart read. “Even assuming that Walmart did not steer the ‘real’ customers in a certain purchasing direction designed to increase the price savings, it certainly motivated them to select items that they knew or believed would favor Walmart to increase their chances of making $500.”
Laura and Joyce insist that didn’t happen. “I definitely wasn’t guided to buy anything in particular,” Laura said. Joyce agreed: “I can honestly say there was no influence as to what I would buy and I think they were careful to just let me do my thing.”
Conversely, couponers have complained that many shoppers in the Walmart ads have made poor purchasing decisions at their respective grocery stores – spending more than they should have, by not buying things that were on sale, and not using coupons and taking advantage of store policies like double coupons that Walmart doesn’t offer (read one detailed comparison here: “‘See For Yourself’, Indeed”). “Not everyone uses coupons,” Joyce said. “Most of us really would not have an idea what is cheaper from place to place.” Besides, both Joyce and Laura said there just wasn’t time to come up with a master plan, to either save as much as possible at the grocery store, or to spend as much as possible in order to boost their ultimate savings percentage at Walmart. Laura got the call that she was selected for her commercial the very day they wanted her to go shopping. Joyce had two days’ notice, but didn’t even know the details of what she was getting into. “There was no ‘prep’ time involved since they didn’t tell us what we would do other than we would be shopping,” she said. “I didn’t even know that we were shopping at TWO stores.”
But then, things have changed a bit since Laura and Joyce shot their commercials more than a year ago. The ads’ ubiquity on TV means that virtually anyone selected to appear now, understands the drill. And Walmart has apparently altered its selection process as well.
Two women chosen to appear in more recent Walmart commercials offer slightly different stories than Laura and Joyce. While they did not agree to answer questions for this article, they did provide accounts about their experiences.
Gretchen, who lives in Pennsylvania, was chosen for a Walmart ad in March of this year. Teandra, from New Mexico, shot her ad in April. Each had audition experiences similar to Laura and Joyce. But each ultimately found herself participating in a “savings contest” of sorts. When Gretchen went shopping at her local Weis grocery store, and Teandra went to Albertsons, each found herself shopping alongside another “real Mom”. Everyone was given an envelope of $250 in cash, and told to choose a few dozen items that they would typically purchase. When they were done, and the prices of their items were compared with Walmart’s, the shopper who ended up saving the most at Walmart was selected to appear in a commercial, while the other Mom was sent home. Everyone got a $250 gift card for their trouble – so the total compensation package still equals $500 – but only the Mom who saved the most got to be on TV. In other words, only the Mom who bought things with the biggest price differential from one store to the next got her moment in the spotlight. So any Mom who might have purposely bought big-ticket items at the grocery store that weren’t on sale, that she knew would be cheaper at Walmart, had the best chance of getting on TV. Just as Schnucks had feared.
There’s no indication that Gretchen or Teandra tried to game the system that way. In fact, Gretchen said she even used coupons during her grocery outing, though it’s unclear whether Walmart factored that into her total. But the new “whoever saves more gets to be on TV” method of choosing participants, does raise some questions. It lends legitimacy to Schnucks’ suspicion that Walmart “cherry-picked (participants’) receipts from among others in an effort to manufacture the largest price differential”. What if neither Mom in the “contest” saved enough, or saved at all, at Walmart?
Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the big reveal at the end of the commercials, in which the final total and savings percentage are shown, differs depending on how much is actually saved. If it’s a significant amount, the commercial’s host announces the grand total, and the savings percentage is shown on screen. If the savings are not so large, the host never quite turns the cash register display around enough for viewers to be able to see it. Either way, though, whether it’s by a lot or a little, Walmart always wins the Walmart Challenge – at least those that it chooses to show on TV. It’s an ad campaign, after all, not a scientific study or a documentary. Walmart is under no obligation to show the results of anyone’s shopping trip that doesn’t favor Walmart.
The ads must be effective, though, if competitors are complaining and Walmart is still making them. Even some of the shoppers featured said their experience was an eye-opener. “I don’t go to Walmart to do my weekly shopping,” Laura said. “However, after the commercial, it really did show that certain things are a lot cheaper at Walmart. If I go for something else, like a white T-shirt, or cleaning supplies or something, I will go to the grocery side while I am there and get things like cereal, peanut butter, juice. These things are good deals.” Before shooting her commercial, Joyce said she would generally shop at Giant Eagle but would occasionally “go to Walmart depending on what I am looking for, since Walmart has more items as well as just groceries.” After her commercial, she said, “I still shop at BOTH places and will continue to do that.”
And if Walmart Moms who aren’t featured in the commercials end up feeling the same way – you can expect to see more Walmart Challenges on TV for some time to come.