How Big Chains Broke Up Small Town America
By Curtis Harding
As shopping habits have been shifting more and more to online, we seem to have entered an utterly bizarre era of social consciousness. We talk about supporting small businesses, but in the same breath, we lament the erosion of brick-and-mortar stores like Best Buy and Barnes & Noble, and make nostalgic documentaries about the last Blockbuster in America.
It’s as if we’ve forgotten that, before their decline, chains like these washed over the nation, sweeping away countless local businesses that didn’t have the resources for their markdowns or strong-arming communities into providing financial incentives. And it’s not like it was a sudden occurrence. This was happening before our eyes for decades.
Once, as NPR explains, the U.S. had laws to protect small stores and keep larger chains from buying products at higher volume discounts. It kept the playing field somewhat even for everyone, as big stores couldn’t price out small mom and pop businesses. But in the ‘50s, those laws began eroding, and by 1962, the stage was set for an explosion — K-Mart, Target, and, of course, Wal-Mart all launched that year.
By the ‘80s and ‘90s, chains were expanding aggressively, and as they spread out across the country, communities changed with them. The shopping experience extended out from a thriving downtown into more remote areas where there was room to build massive stores with sprawling parking lots. Retail chains were convenient, but they were places for picking up things, not for communities to gather and interact.
Out of all these chains, Wal-Mart probably gets the most sustained flack — and for good reason. Even in the online age, they still dominate, outstripping Target, Amazon and every other retailer out there. And while they can provide jobs and groceries in communities with no other options, in already healthy communities they can drive down wages, shut down smaller businesses, and add to an increase in obesity and crime rates.
But even Wal-Mart began struggling in lean times, and during the Great Recession, cheaper alternatives with even less to offer started flexing their muscle. As money grew tighter and folks cut back, dollar stores stepped in to provide rock-bottom pricing. But even when the economy bounced back, that expansion kept flying forward. Now, Money projects, over 40% of new stores opening in the U.S. are going to be dollar stores, moving in to flood and change small communities. That’s… jarring, but how bad is it?
The Guardian tells the story of Haven, Kansas, where Dollar General moved in. They demanded a staggering break on utility bills, but promised revenue-boosting in return. They made good on that promise by raising tax revenue for the town by $60,000. But then they forced the local grocery store out of business. It had provided $75,000 a year in tax revenue — plus it actually paid its utility bill. And without the grocery store, fresh produce and local food was out, and cheap, unhealthy, processed food was in. Even the mayor who championed the Dollar General doesn’t like shopping there. Then, with its biggest draw gone, the town’s main street began sputtering out as well.
It’s a story worth reading through in its entirety, but it’s not entirely hopeless. When Dollar General tried moving into Haven’s neighboring town of Buhler, those folks saw what had happened and shut the dollar store out. They were doing just fine without them. If big retail chains can tear communities apart, they can also be stopped when communities come together. And maybe, in coming together, our communities can emerge stronger than ever. It’s a lesson worth learning if we want to stop chain retail racing to the bottom and dragging our communities down with them.
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