Shoppers in St. Petersburg took to Facebook to express their outrage over finding expired baby formula and other goods at a local Walmart three weeks ago. The post quickly went viral.
The Tampa Bay Times wrote a front page story about it and a local television station covered it.
At the time, Walmart said employees were working fast to fix the problem. They pledged to do better.
For the next three weeks, Tampa Bay Times reporters browsed the aisles of Walmart stores around Tampa Bay looking for more expired goods. We continued to find expired baby formula, sour cream, baby food, supplements and prenatal vitamins at Walmart Supercenters and Walmart Neighborhood Market stores in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties despite the media coverage that revealed the problem at local stores. Dozens of Times readers also wrote and called in with stories and photos about buying expired goods from Walmart stores in Brandon, Brooksville, Wimauma, Clearwater, Ruskin, Sebring and elsewhere.
We checked out Walmart's competitors, like Aldi, Save-A-Lot, Winn-Dixie and even stores like Family Dollar and Dollar General, to see if they had expired goods, too. We didn't find any.
We also found that the Walmart Supercenter stores and Walmart Neighborhood Market stores that serve neighborhoods that are low income and ethnically diverse seemed to have the most expired goods on their shelves.
For example, the Walmart Neighborhood Market located at 1794 22nd St S., in St. Petersburg, where the original complaints went viral, serves a neighborhood where nearly half the homes sold over the last six months were less than $100,000.
Compare that to the Walmart Neighborhood Market at 6850 22nd Ave. S., in South Pasadena, which serves more middle and upper class neighborhoods. Times reporters did not find any expired goods at this store, which is in a neighborhood where only 13 percent of homes sold over the last six months were under $100,000.
Walmart acknowledged the problems: "We want to apologize for what's been brought to our attention. This is unacceptable, and we've worked hard to remove all out-of-date products from our store shelves. We'll continue addressing this matter to make sure our customers have access to the freshest products, and we encourage them to speak to a manager about concerns they may have," said Charles Crowson, spokesman for the retailer.
It appeared Walmart was making progress as time went on. Times reporters noticed fewer expired items on shelves over the three-week period. By the end, most stores no longer had expired goods at all.
Phil Lempert, editor at SupermarketGuru.com, wondered if Walmart had a distribution problem. He said new technology could fix problems like this fast.
"The answer lies with barcode technology," Lempert said. "New technology wouldn't allow a cashier to sell a product that was expired. The barcode would flag it for the cashier. The problem is, retailers aren't using this yet. It's a complicated issue."
Troubles with stores in low income neighborhoods is common, according to recent study shows that Walmart stores nearest to low-income or diverse neighborhoods often have the worst online reviews. A study published in Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association, analyzed thousands of Yelp reviews of Walmart stores nationwide and found that the higher the percentage of Black or Latino residents in a specific ZIP code, the worse the Yelp reviews were for that corresponding store.
Crowson described the study as "flawed" and "meritless."
"Our customer traffic is up, we're hearing positive feedback from more satisfied shoppers and we remain focused on getting better," he added.
Most of the specific complaints in the study had to do with too few employees working in the stores and dirty store conditions.
"While there's no excuse for anyone to go into these stores and find expired goods, this sounds like a staffing problem," Lempert said. "People want to pay the cheapest price possible" so often times retailers like Walmart employ less people to make up the difference.
"They can't afford to staff stores properly," Lempert said.
Crowson said that staffing at Walmart stores depends on a variety of factors, including the time of the year and store sales.
"We recognize the critical role our associates play in our success, and that's why we're investing $2.7 billion on education, training and wages. Those opportunities help to strengthen our associates, their families and the communities we proudly serve," he added.
Staffing seemed to be a common issue among all discount grocery stores visited by Times reporters over the last three weeks. Often times there was only one or two employees working at Aldi, Save-A-Lot or Walmart Neighborhood Market stores we visited.
"You never hear of this happening in chain-oriented environments," said Jeff Green, a retail analyst with Jeff Green Partners. "But Walmart is known for having especially few staffers."
James Miller with the Florida Retail Federation said that sometimes retailers end up with a greater surplus of one brand of product if it doesn't sell well.
"Maybe a store simply made an error in not removing that item or not reordering merchandise in a timely fashion," Miller said. "I think what you ran into with the expired food is highly unusual and were a few isolated incidents, not at all indicative of the company or industry."
But this isn't the first time Walmart or another grocer has sold expired food and perishable goods.
In 2008, the state of New Jersey filed a lawsuit against Walmart, Target and a local grocery store chain over selling expired infant formula. Target settled the case for $375,000. Walmart settled two years later for $775,000.
"What's the point of the expiration date? To give consumers the best, and most fresh product they can for their money," Green said. "While we can't say this was done intentionally, it's certainly not best practices, which is what Walmart usually prides itself on."
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.