By: Jim Brumm
June 27, 2010
Not so very long ago one of the joys of traveling across the United States was seeing and experiencing different places. When you crossed the state line, or sometimes even the county line, things changed, sometimes a lot. The towns looked different, there were restaurants that served local foods that were different from what you ate, or could eat, at home. Local customs were different from what you left behind. You could find something at the local store—a souvenir you could only get there—that personified that region and acted as a locally-made memento of your visit. Stopping at local diners or trucks stops along the way, you could watch the menus change as you traveled. The closer you got to Kansas, for example, the more likely it was that you could order things like biscuits and gravy, which hadn’t been on the menu at the last stop. If you were taking a southern route, you’d know you were getting there when you stopped to eat and for the first time saw grits on the menu. And it’s not like you had a choice; you were there, you ate the local fare or you didn’t eat. You could meet people who had backgrounds and experiences vastly different from what you had known all your life, with different stories to tell and different perspectives of what it means to be an American. This rich diversity of customs, foods, crafts, and local quirks was what made it so much fun to visit new places around the country. You could experience Texas barbeque hot off the grill, Chicago blues straight from the saxophone, New England lobster caught that day, Florida oranges right from the tree; every state had it’s own offerings. But you had to actually go to these places to experience the real thing. Going to the store in a new place could be an adventure. When you shopped in these new, unknown stores you would encounter brands you hadn’t seen before, with unfamiliar labels. You felt like you were away from home.
Over the past thirty or forty years things have changed quite a bit. Our nation, and to a certain extent, our world, have experienced a sort of homogenization—a blurring of the idiosyncrasies and unique qualities that defined one state or one region from another until in many cases one place looks pretty much the same as any other place. For example, I live in Santa Rosa, in Northern California. I occasionally make a trip south down Highway 101 which runs through California’s central valley. Along the way I pass through quite a few small towns, from Salinas to King City to Atascadero to the tiny town of Gonzales. Zipping along the road as I pass through these towns, one thing quickly starts to stand out. Every single town I pass through has the same strip mall alongside the freeway. I mean, seriously, they actually look like the exact same strip mall. They are all designed in the modern strip-mall fashion, with the same color combinations of pastel brick red or light yellow or sage green stucco exteriors, and the same, endlessly-repeated corporate logos on the signs that rise above the freeway. Home Depot, Walmart, PETCO, Starbucks, Staples, Bed, Bath, & Beyond, Target, Best Buy, Costco, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Sam’s Club, Circuit City, Lowes, Michael’s, I could go on for a long time. Then—God save us—there are the fast food outlets that accompany these stores: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Jack in the Box, Subway—you get the picture. Driving along, when I would see another strip mall coming up, it got so I would think about pulling over to check a map or something to make sure I hadn’t been driving in circles. I felt like I was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” How, I would wonder to myself, could I have been traveling all this time and yet still keep passing the exact same strip mall? I would find myself saying aloud (and I’m not even Catholic), Holy Mother of God! How many Starbucks will it take until we’re satisfied? How many McDonald’s? How many Walmarts? When will it end?
And speaking of those “savings,” I have friends who make precious little money and argue that they don’t care about shopping locally; they only have so much dough, and they are going to seek out the lowest cost, wherever that may be. I understand, really. When you’ve got to feed your kids and keep the lights on, immediate needs trump long-term considerations. But if you are in that position, and feel that you must shop at non-local discount stores because of a lack of money, consider this from Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, citing economist Emek Basker, who has done exhaustive studies on Walmart and it’s ramifications on local economies: “Much touted “everyday low prices” are applied selectively, often on inexpensive high-volume goods that are essentially thinly disguised loss leaders. Walmart actually has higher than average prices on about one-third of the stock it carries. On those items for which prices are lower, the average savings is 37 cents, with about one-third of items carrying a savings of no more than 2 cents.”
Corporations are aware, however, that there is resentment and blowback from communities, so they often put forth concerted efforts to change their image of faceless corporate imperialism to that of benign, caring neighbor. Starbucks is not the only one to claim that their company is a community gathering place. This hijacking of the “Main Street” image is common. When a new, sprawling retail complex is built on the edge of yet another town, they are often given names like, “The Commons,” or “Village,” (just as sprawling ticky-tack suburban developments are often given names like, “Pine Meadows,” though there is not a pine or a meadow to be found anywhere). These attempts at creating a false sense of community extend to fashioning strip malls in the style of old-fashioned Main Street scenes, replete with faux gas lights, quaint signage, and false fronts like a Hollywood movie set. But underneath the façade are the same corporate entities found everywhere else. As Stacy Mitchell states, “Corporate retailers have so eroded our sense of community that they have even managed to sell it back to us in the form of a superficial design concept.”
In the last chapter we looked at suburban sprawl, that soulless spread of tract homes and strip malls that has come to define so much of America. Big retail developments exacerbate this sprawl wherever they appear. For some reason, and this is a real head-scratcher to me, the larger a store or development is, the farther people will travel to shop there. Consumers will happily go way, way out of their neighborhoods, driving long distances, burning gas and choking the roads, in order to shop at a giant retail store. The bigger the store, it has been shown, the farther people will drive to shop there. Huge retailers, who spend millions to understand consumers’ motivations and desires (they probably know us better than we do ourselves), capitalize on this, competing with one another to build the largest, most conspicuous stores possible. This has, as Stacy Mitchell pointed out in her book, set off a kind of development arms race—a never-ending quest to outsize the competitors and undercut Main Street. Mitchell goes on to say that “this hearkens back to our obsession with cars and infrastructure to support them. Our entire model of highways, freeways, suburban sprawl, and car culture makes it possible for big-box retailers to open gigantic, sprawling shopping centers on the outskirts of communities, luring shoppers from their city centers and local retailers to the mega-retailers offering them (often illusory) lower prices.”
While fuel mileage has been a large part of the focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the proliferation of big-box retail centers located far from city centers largely offset—because of increased driving to shop—any savings made from more efficient cars. It has been shown that locally owned, neighborhood businesses affect how much we drive, and how much we use public transportation. Susan Handy, who studies travel behavior at the University of California, Davis, found that how often people walked to do their errands was closely related to how close the stores were and how many store choices there were. She looked at neighborhoods in Austin, Texas, and found that a neighborhood that had a goodly amount of small, local stores drove 42 percent less to do their shopping than similar area neighborhoods that did not have a thriving, populated downtown. But our habits of driving long distances to go shopping in chain stores are hard to break. As Stacey Mitchel put it, “Right now, everything from deferral transportation spending to state economic-development incentives and local land-use policies heavily favor driving over transit, big-box stores over neighborhood businesses, and sprawl over infill.”
The amount of retail space per person in the U.S. doubled in the 15 years between 1990 and 2005. And to accommodate the cars bringing the frenzied shoppers to these retail paradises, for every square foot of retail space, another three to four feet was paved for parking. Stacy Mitchell points out that “the acreage of retail store space has been expanding ten times faster than household incomes . . . these companies purposely flood local markets with an excess of retail space in order to dilute the available consumer dollars and capsize their smaller competitors, which no matter how skilled, may lack the deep financial resources necessary to outlast such an assault. As local stores contract and close, communities end up losing as many or more retail jobs as they gain from the new superstore. Indeed, retail employment actually fell in counties that added Walmart stores, according to a national study. Still, the myth is that new big-box stores and shopping centers expand job opportunities, in part because the gains—two hundred people donning orange aprons at Home Depot—are visible, while the losses are scattered across many businesses and may take months to materialize.”
And, finally, to hammer home the point, she goes on to say, “. . . retailer’s basic strategy is to blanket an area with large, freestanding “box” stores at the outskirts of small towns to pull customers away from the downtown merchants. Eventually Walmart gets customers and the support of the local press by advertising heavily in the area’s newspapers. There is a strong emphasis on promotions that target the business of local retailers by aggressively undercutting their prices. On average, a hundred local stores will go out of business for each Walmart opened, most of them family businesses that have served their communities for decades, sometimes generations. According to Forbes Magazine, Walmart’s concept is clear and simple: Discount stores in small towns and rural areas, each big enough to freeze out competition.”
A study by Iowa State University showed that when a new Walmart came to a town, rather than bring more business and invigorating the economy, 84 percent of sales were simply shifting dollars away from existing local merchants.
Recent studies however have begun to show some positive shifts in the mega-retailer dominance of our nation. There is much evidence that traditional “mom and pop” stores are beginning to thrive again in many parts of the country. They now make up more than 70 percent of all businesses in America, according to writer Robert Longley, a liaison between citizens, cities, and the federal government.
The fact is that local merchants are part of the community. The have a vested interest in the welfare of their towns and their customers. If they alienate their customers, they can’t just shut the store and move on to the next place; their stores are part and parcel of their home, their lives and their livelihood. Local merchants are much more likely to do business with the local bank, local craftsmen, local suppliers, and shop locally themselves. They consistently advertise in local publications. For local merchants, relationships and trust are as much a part of doing business as profit. They are a strong thread in the very fabric of their communities.
I recently bought a book at an independent book store in my home town, a much-loved, somewhat unorganized, messy, small-town book store, a place where you can browse for hours, and where the owner and employees know and love books as much as their customers. Their inventory is not computerized; if you are looking for an obscure title, they’ll point you in the right general direction, but after that it’s up to you. This, of course, leads to wonderful, long hours of exploring of dusty shelves and quite often serendipitous surprises. Anyway, after getting my book home, I realized it was the wrong version of the book I wanted. Later, I was in the book store again—without the book I had purchased—and mentioned to them that I had bought the wrong book. The owner pulled the book I wanted off the shelf, handed it to me, and asked me to bring the other one by the next time I was downtown. Nothing was signed; no money changed hands. He just let me walk out with the new book. Of course, I made a point of quickly returning the other book to him as soon as I could, as he knew I would. You could never get away with that at a discount, chain book store. With absentee owners, no one has any authority to make decisions like that. Employees have their employee manual and are trained to push the right pre-programmed buttons on the cash register. There is often no room for the human element, though in the long run the human element is what it’s all about.
People thrive on relationships and love to do business with people they know and trust. There is nothing more in line with the story of America than owning your own business. There was a time when a man or woman could buy a house and raise a family on the wages earned as an employee at a small, local business, and many did. Knowing your local baker or shopkeeper is part of the richness of belonging to a community. Not only do you know them, but they know you, your habits, and your likes and dislikes. They ask about your kids. In this type of relationship the balance of power is fair and equal. You need your merchant, but he needs you, too. The shopkeeper has little incentive to try to increase profits by gouging his customers. The customer has little incentive to take the merchant’s profit by demanding lower and lower prices. It’s symbiotic. If a local shopkeeper ran his business with only profit in mind, at the expense of his customers overall experience and satisfaction, he would not be in business for long, because, as we’ve seen, every time we choose where we buy something we vote with our wallets for the type of world we want to live in.
Despite this obvious correlation between where we spend our dollars and the health of our communities, we are conditioned to seek discounts, and many, if not most, will flock to distant mega-discounters even when we know it’s hurting our own local businesses. It’s time, then, to take a long-term view of this, and translate our understanding of the harm mega-retailers inflict on our communities into action. Many towns or regions in the country now have an organization that promotes shopping locally. Go on the Internet and type “shop local” along with the name of your town or county, and see what you get. If you haven’t already looked into this, you may be surprised.
But how can you, alone, making the decision to shop locally have any effect on the encroachment of mega-retailers? Watching throngs of people going into the local Walmart, it may seem like your choice to shop locally, and maybe even spend a little more, may be pointless, that it won’t change anything. But, as in so many other aspects of our lives, one person may have little or no power, but collectively we can have a huge effect on any number of things, including revitalizing our local communities. Like a huge oil tanker at top speed, heavy with momentum, mega-retailers have charted a course straight through the center of our local economies. And, like that oil tanker, it can be very difficult to slow or turn. Individually we cannot do much to stop it, but together we can lay the awesome weight of our collective economic power on the rudder of this corporate behemoth, and gradually change the course of their business and, ultimately, the economic well-being of our communities and our lives. It’s our choice, but we must do it together.
Bear with me if you will while I tell you a short story from a cartoon I once saw. I don’t usually cite cartoon episodes to back up my arguments, but I take my wisdom where I find it. This cartoon episode was from the popular animated television show, South Park, a show rife with social commentary, albeit delivered in an often acerbic, socially unacceptable manner. In this particular episode, titled “Something Walmart This Way Comes,” a Walmart opened a mega-store in the small town of South Park. As in so many towns where Walmart makes an appearance, the citizenry rose up in indignation, and groups organized to force the store to close because they thought Walmart would hurt their local businesses. But when these concerned citizens went into the Walmart to voice their complaints, before they could say a thing they found themselves captivated by price tags offering amazing deals on all sorts of things. “Screwdrivers for a dollar ninety-nine!” they would exclaim, then find themselves standing in the checkout line with a pile of stuff they hadn’t intended to buy, because no matter how much they hated what Walmart represented to their community, they just couldn’t resist the low prices.
In the meantime, small local businesses all over the community were being forced out of business as all the adults eschewed their local retailers for the low-price monster in their midst, unable to resist the siren’s call of cheap toasters and blenders. (Stay with me, I have a point, I promise!) The children of the community, originally proud of their parents’ stand against the mega-retailer, were horrified to find their mothers and fathers succumbing to the low prices without a fight. When they complained, one father resolved to go in and complain once and for all. Within moments, though, he was grabbing things off the shelf, unable to muster the will power when faced with such amazing prices. “Save yourselves!” he yelled to his kids from the checkout line, “It’s too late for me!”
The children finally decided they needed to take on Walmart themselves, to save their parents and their town. By this point in the cartoon the big-box store was being depicted as a malevolent, sentient predator—the building itself breathing and laughing as it captured the retail souls of the towns’ residents and destroyed the local economy. The children decided that in order to destroy the beast, they had to find “the heart of Walmart” and drive a sword into it. By now the story had become an epic quest on par with the search for the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece, a mythic battle between good and evil. With no help from the adults, whose souls had already been consumed by the megastore, the children prepared to do battle. Fighting their way into the store, stepping around the adults who were shopping like brain-dead zombies, the children finally came across an old man—who tells them that he is Walmart himself. They told him that they were there to kill the beast by driving a sword into its heart. The old man smiled, stepped aside, and pointed to a television. There, he told them, behind that plasma screen TV, is the heart of Walmart. The children prepared their weapons, and, poised to drive their swords home and kill the beast, they flung the TV aside.
Instead of the beating heart of the beast, they found a mirror and stood there staring at their own reflections. The old man smiled. “You are the heart of Walmart,” he told them. He explained that Walmart couldn’t be successful without “you,” the consumer.
I must admit, I cringed when I saw that show. Talk about throwing it back in our face. The inconvenient truth is that if we don’t like Walmart or any other discount retailers encroaching on our communities and driving out our long-time local businesses, we are the ones who must do something about it. It’s up to us, individually and collectively. We’re not victims. As long as we see ourselves as victims we will feel powerless and throw up our hands as our communities are stolen from us. As soon as we decide to take our collective power back we will be unstoppable. The fact is that it simply cannot happen without our consent and our participation. Bill McKibben, in his book, Deep Economy, said this: “For Walmart to prosper, we must think of ourselves as individuals—must think that being individuals is the better deal . . . think of yourself as a member of a community, and you’ll get a better deal. You’ll live in a world with some hope of ecological stability, where the chances increase that you’ll be happy. You may not have quite as many small appliances, because they may cost a few dollars more, but you’ll be happier.”
Let’s sum up how long-term thinking and shopping locally go hand in hand: First, shopping locally keeps dollars in our neighborhoods. Local businesses help create and sustain the character of our towns and communities—those quirks and special features that make our towns unique and special, not just knock-offs of every town around ours.
Generally speaking, you’ll get better service from local businesses. They understand their customers’ needs and wants, and have a stake in keeping good relationships with the public.
Small, local businesses are, collectively, the largest employer in the nation, and account for the lion’s share of job growth. Local businesses are far less likely to pull up stakes and take their business and jobs elsewhere.
A wide variety of small businesses create more choice of products than homogenized chain stores.
As we have just seen, shopping locally helps the environment, helping keep down congestion, habitat loss, pollution, and sprawl.
Local businesses tend to support local non-profits. In fact, non-profits received an average of 350 percent more support from local businesses than they do from non-local businesses.
Local, downtown businesses need less infrastructure and have less need for large outlays of public services. And, as we’ve seen, local businesses are run by people with an investment in the community. They have a stake in the towns in which they do business, and they tend to make decisions with that in mind.
And finally, a study in Austin, Texas, showed that if each household redirected $100 of their spending over the holidays to local businesses, the local economic impact in just that area would be in the tens of millions of dollars.
It’s truly up to us. We cannot wait for corporations to do the right thing. They simply won’t. They are under a legal mandate to do whatever it takes to increase profits to their shareholders, no matter the cost to communities or the planet or individual lives. If the CEOs of these corporations do not do everything in their power to increase profits, they can be sued by shareholders and removed from their position. It’s up to us. No matter how large the problem seems, or how insignificant our efforts may seem in the short run, over the long run, if we stick together, we can shift the dominant economic paradigm from one of greed, power, and profit, to one of balance, fairness, and a mindset of making decisions for the common good, and long-term best interest of all.