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The United States of Generica

By: Jim Brumm

June 27, 2010

The United States of Generica

 

 “I watched my country turn into a coast-to-coast strip mall, and I cried out in a song. If we could do all this in thirty years then please, please tell me ya’ll, why does good change take so long?” Greg Brown, The Poet Game
 

    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?

 

   The truth is that today, in modern America, it won’t end. It never ends. On your road trip across our great nation, when you get hungry and pull off the highway to eat, whether you’re in Duluth, Phoenix, Kansas City, Tampa, Seattle, or New Orleans, you will find the same litany of fast food joints waiting there at virtually every freeway off ramp. The food you order from any of these fast-food outlets will be pretty much the same as you’d find in any other outlet, anywhere in the country. You’ve got to really look if you want to experience local cuisine, because true local cuisine has almost become a thing of the past in America. Even sit-down restaurants have taken the corporate route with Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, International House of Pancakes, Denny’s, and so many others, each with the same laminated menu offering the exact same things in every store from Atlantic City to Sacramento. And after you eat, if you’re ready for a latte, I promise you that no matter where you are, there’ll be a Starbucks nearby. (Starbucks has 7950 stores in the U.S. and over 11,200 worldwide. California alone has over 2000.) Need something else? The Walmart just around the corner is selling virtually the same stuff you can buy at any Walmart anywhere in the country. If you’re done travelling for the day, nearby you can find an identical Best Western, Holiday Inn, Motel Six, or any one of many corporate motel/hotel chains. (I once heard someone say that the Holiday Inn rooms are so alike in every state that he once checked into his room in Dallas and found his toenail clipping on the floor next to the nightstand, just where he’d left it in San Diego.) While on your trip through modern America, if you should go to buy a souvenir, maybe a snow globe in New York with a model of the statue of liberty in it, or perhaps a spoon rest in Kansas shaped and painted to look like a corn cob, you will probably be able to find the words, printed neatly somewhere on the back of your keepsake, “Made in China.” Unique, regional souvenirs that are actually made in the area are nearly a thing of the past.[1]
   
  In just over one generation our country has become, in the words of my son, Andrew, “The United States of Generica.” From coast to coast our towns have slowly morphed into one big shopping complex, with the same stores virtually everywhere you look. What we observed about the suburbs in the last chapter, we can also see across the entire land: there is no “there” there. Today, almost every place in America offers the same foods, the same products, the same signage, the same expectations, and the same experience across a wide spectrum of daily life. With so much emphasis on shopping and consuming, we have allowed corporations to run rampant until collectively they would seem to define our national identity. If there’s one thing a visitor to America will take away with him or her after a trip across our country, it’s images of Walmart or McDonalds. A visitor could be excused for imagining that, despite all our talk about freedom and opportunity, in the end huge corporations and incessant shopping are essentially what we’re all about. A huge share of our collective consumer spending has been captured by a shrinking number of mega corporations. With one goal in mind—profit—these huge companies have managed to insinuate themselves into every corner of our lives.
 
    This new reality, this inundation of mega corporations in virtually every corner of our country, has had some profound effects on communities across the nation. Unknown shareholders and corporate managers with no sense of place or community have, over the last several decades, become the arbiters of the economic well-being of communities they have never visited and know little about save the bottom line—the profitability of the local demographic. In her book, Big Box Swindle, author Stacy Mitchell likens this to a “modern variation on the old European colonial system, which was designed not to build economically viable and self-reliant communities, but to extract their wealth and resources.”


One interesting note: “Made in China” is not a new thing. In the 13th century, during the reign of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan, craftsmen in China were carving images of the Madonna and the Christ child out of ivory and shipping them west to be sold to Christians in Europe.
Though the chain-store phenomenon is highly visible today everywhere you look, it’s not a new thing in America. One of the earliest chain stores, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, better known as the A & P, was started in 1859 with one small store in Manhattan. The chain grew quickly, opening new stores at a rapid pace and growing to hundreds of outlets by the early 1900s. The A & P was the Walmart of its day, though even at its peak it only managed to capture one quarter as much of American consumer dollars as Walmart has captured today. As the business model of chain stores grew popular, many other familiar names appeared on the landscape: Woolworths, Sears and Roebuck, CO,, J.C. Penney, Piggly Wiggly, Kroger Grocery Store, and many others became well known across the country. In the words of Ellen Ruppel Shell, in her book, Cheap, the High Cost of Discount Culture, “These stores were free agents without loyalty to any particular community, and they held no loyalty to any particular supplier. Price was the determining factor in most of their transactions.”
 
    And, even back then, there were consumer groups protesting the infiltration of their communities by these large corporations. Citizens’ groups in the early 1900s rallied against chain stores unfairly driving down wages and hurting local businessmen. They were also concerned about too much economic power being concentrated into the hands of so few. Sound familiar? Ellen Ruppel Shell cites John Hargreaves, an early president of the Retail Merchant’s Association, who postulated that cut-rate prices “reduced the value of labour, and have destroyed the purchasing power of many classes, thereby affecting all classes.” Shell goes on to point out that “Shopkeepers in the early 1900s who advertised low prices to attract business were derided as ‘common cutters,’ and ‘gutter merchants,’ and social reformers pointed to the ‘vile, awful sweatshop’ where ‘plenty of the bargains’ were made. Chain stores in particular came under fire as citizens coast to coast banded together to halt what they considered a vicious and cutthroat corporate invasion.”
 
    But the chains kept on coming, growing by 300 percent in the 1920s alone. A handful of local governments attempted to thwart their growth by levying high taxes and fees, limiting the number of outlets a chain could open in a particular area, and, in some cases, even trying to outlaw chain stores entirely.
 
     Like today, the chains countered with the simple claim that their success proved that they were offering their customers the one thing that counted above all others: lower prices. Since the early 1900s, however, these concerned citizens’ groups and local governments have stopped the construction and encroachment of hundreds of big-box developments, proving that while the mega-retailer’s pockets are deep and their influence great, they are not unstoppable.
 
    Though it appears that big-box discount chains are the inevitable result of wise, price-conscious consumer spending, and that they bring economic growth and prosperity, in reality they often cost the communities in which they do business much more than any jobs or money they bring. As many are realizing, lower prices on the shelves often means quite higher prices on other important things, such as the loss of a stable local economy, the inability to earn a living wage, and, ultimately, the unraveling of the very fabric of our communities. When people shop at chain stores, their dollars, which used to circulate locally to fuel the local economy, now largely leave the area, enriching owners and shareholders far away. Consider this: for every dollar spent at a corporate chain store, 15 cents stays to circulate in the local economy. For every dollar spent in a locally-owned business, 45 cents stays in the community, a difference of 150 percent.

 

    Walmart has grown exponentially since 1990, taking around ten percent of every dollar spent on just about everything in the United States. The top 10 mega retailers now command around 30 percent of all consumer spending. In the meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of smaller, locally-owned, family businesses have disappeared, the very small family businesses that created the American small-town dream in the first place. Again, from Ellen Ruppel Shell: “Discount chains not only put untold numbers of small retailers out of business, they reshaped the American demographic. Since retail traditionally had one of the lowest median rates of pay, the expansion of discount retailers that paid even lower wages contributed to a spurt in poorly paid jobs.”
 
    We like the convenience, many of us like the low prices, but almost anyone you ask will tell you that they hate the blight of corporate logos looming over every landscape and the inundation of fast-food joints on virtually every corner. Nobody seems to actually like huge, impersonal strip malls. Nobody likes dealing with the traffic to get there. Yet we continue to patronize these businesses even though we have always had a choice to shop elsewhere. And if we took the time to give the matter some serious thought, using our best long-term thinking skills, most of us would choose to shop elsewhere, in order to bolster and support our local economy. Because despite the perceived right-now savings garnered at these stores, there are many hidden costs to shopping at big-box stores or chain stores that, over the long run, often actually end up costing us and our communities much more than the few cents or dollars we save at the cash register.

    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.”
 
    The takeover of our towns’ economies by large, faceless, corporate interests robs us of community, weakens the local economy, and renders us vulnerable to the vagaries of decisions made from afar, with little or no regard to the consequences of those decisions on our corner of the world, wherever that is. There are compelling long-term reasons for rethinking our current paradigm of corporate gigantism, and much of the power to shape, control, or even end corporate influence lies with us collectively as consumers.
 
    It’s not always easy making the choice to forgo shopping at chain discount stores in favor of supporting local businesses. Marketing is a very powerful thing and giant corporations are very, very good at it. Each day, everywhere we go, we are bombarded with messages from dozens of these corporate mega chains, each trying to catch our attention and divert our dollars their way. We may like to believe as individuals that we can ignore them or that we are immune to their efforts, but if we live in America we can’t help but absorb these messages unless we’re in a coma (and sometimes it seems that all those ads are enough to put us in that coma!). Being used to absorbing lots of marketing messages, however, is not the same as not being able to resist them; it takes an effort to do so; you have to pay attention and think carefully when you spend your money, because every dollar spent is a vote for the kind of life you want for yourself and your society.
 
    Evan Carton, founder and director of the University of Texas Humanities Institute, says this: “One’s tax or one’s consumer dollar does not simply disappear into the coffers of a faraway government or a spectral corporation; it funds acts that may be immoral and the funder must therefore acknowledge his role as an accomplice.”
 
    It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend just how hard corporations work and how much they spend to get your attention. In 2004, according to their annual report, Walmart spent $1.4 billion on advertising alone. That’s one thousand four hundred million dollars spent just to entice us in or keep us coming back, mostly by offering lower prices. The larger a corporation gets, the larger the bulk buys it can make from its suppliers; the larger the purchase, the lower the cost per item to the store, and presumably, to the customer. At its simplest, this is why a company like Walmart can out-compete local businesses that are not on the same tier when it comes to buying power and too often actually manage to drive them out of business. People may complain when a Walmart or other big-box store comes to town, citing, perhaps, the cost to the local economy, but when the new Walmart opens its doors, the people will come, even while they feel vaguely uneasy about forgoing their tried and true local businesses. Most of us will go to Walmart or other large chain discount stores to save a couple of bucks on a toaster, or a few cents on any number of other items, because that’s what the game has become all about, saving a few bucks, right?

 

 

    But before we beat ourselves up for chasing small discounts and thereby allowing mega corporations to take over our communities and our lives, it’s worth taking a moment to look at the fact that the huge rise in the power of big box retailers everywhere you go was made possible in the first place largely by favorable zoning laws and huge tax breaks provided by local governments, lured by the promises of these large retailers to bring jobs to town. Yes, though just a moment ago we saw that some municipalities attempted to pass laws and levy heavy taxes to stop the spread of giant discount retailers in their communities, in most cases, local governments courted them shamelessly, imagining that these businesses would bring prosperity and a strong tax base to bear.
 
    In the 1950s, new tax laws in thousands of communities were put in place to provide incentives to large retailers to bring their businesses to these towns, using our tax dollars as a form of corporate welfare. These tax breaks and incentives provided and continue to provide billions of dollars in subsidized tax savings to these mega retailers. These tax breaks and subsidies are sometimes referred to as the “Geoffrey Loophole,” named after the Toys “R” Us mascot. After providing these tax breaks, along with other incentives including lax environmental and infrastructure standards on construction of their huge “boxes,” however, many small communities found that instead of a windfall from sales taxes, and a boon in employment, instead they experienced smaller, core businesses in the community closing their doors forever, unable to compete with the aggressive, predatory pricing put forth by the leviathans they had invited into their midst. These super-large retailers force out their smaller competitors by being bigger, not better. In fact, large discounters such as Toys “R” Us are sometimes referred to as “category killers,” for their ability to wipe out all similar but smaller businesses in the area. In addition, the jobs that are provided are usually low paying, and do not provide medical benefits, and local communities find their hospital emergency rooms overrun by citizens who cannot afford health care, and end up using the ER as their primary care facility. Mega-retailers often pay less than living wages, keeping employees just under the number of hours which would require them to provide medical or retirement benefits, and forcing many of these working poor to sign up for food stamps or Medicare. In addition, they work hard to squelch any attempt by their employees to form unions. When employees at a Canadian Walmart successfully formed the first-ever Walmart workers union, the company shut the store down, putting hundreds of people out of work.
 
    After jumping through hoops to entice mega-retailers, these towns find, in the words of Stacey Mitchell, “. . . they are the de facto serfs of the lord retailer, utterly vulnerable to the company’s decisions regarding local laws, wages, and employment, always having to jump through hoops under the threat that the large company may pick up and move to the next town.”
 
    The problem of corporate encroachment is not confined to mega-retailers with giant stores. Smaller corporate entities with smaller footprints, such as Starbucks coffee, also take their toll. I used to publish a local magazine in the Napa Valley wine country of Northern California. Our magazine was geared toward the residents of the Napa Valley, covering local events and happenings, people and business. At that time Starbucks was running a series of television ads touting their stores as the “local meeting place,” or “your community gathering place,” in an attempt to head off any resentment of their over-the-top presence in nearly every community. Despite their ads claiming that Starbucks was all about being “local,” when I approached the managers to inquire about distributing my local magazine in their stores, I was told by all of the managers that publications distributed in their stores must first be approved by their corporate headquarters, which was over a thousand miles away. Despite claiming to be a part of my community, they would not allow my magazine, which really was part of the community, to be made available to their customers. I share this story because it illustrates the fact that although corporate stores claim to be part of and care about the communities in which they do business, their interest, for the most part doesn’t extend much past the profitability of each store, and their corporate guidelines are put in place by absentee owners thousands of miles away who know little or nothing about the communities they “serve.” David C. Korten, in his book, The Post-Corporate World, put it this way: “The central problem of global capitalism may be described in terms of institutional relationships that concentrate power of ownership in the hands of an economic aristocracy that is delinked from community interests and has no accountability.”

 

  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.

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