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attack of the big-box stores

February 13, 2012

News is that the Van Dyke Sports Center (a.k.a., The Butterfly), a local arcade, is going to be replaced by the big-box store Menards. My initial thought is, “Yay, yet another generic chain store in the suburbs—just what we need.” My uneducated take/analysis on the phenomenon as a whole is as follows:

Capital naturally accumulates; and this, in turn, eventually leads to the centralization of corporate entities that become megalithic corporations (and even monopolies, in some cases) that grow to dominate the economic landscape.

The downside is that these entities, like most other large, capitalistic enterprises, require constant growth to survive, which means ever-expanding markets and, more importantly, consumers. The larger the enterprise, they more they need to expand to increase profits (and, of course, CEOs and shareholders want bigger profits, so expand they must).

They’re so large, and have such huge supply chains (getting many items at bulk rates overseas), they can generally offer lower prices than smaller, locally-owned business selling similar products and services. Plus, the more of these stores in one area, the greater the competition between them, hence even lower prices. Moreover, they carry such a large selection that it’s often more convenient for people to go to one of these big-box stores than two or three other, locally-owned ones, which, all together, eventually drives smaller competitors out of business. And worst of all, these kinds of businesses help to create sprawling, homogenized neighborhoods and communities.

The upside, however, is that they tend to provide a lot more jobs than smaller, locally-owned stores, which simply can’t match their level of sales. Of course, these are more often than not low-wage jobs, and the companies actively discourage things like unionization, so the upside is minimal. Nevertheless, consumers want these kinds of stores, particularly since real wages have, on average, remained flat for almost 30 years and entry-level jobs are getting scarce.

Certainly we don’t need another big-box home improvement store; but our consumerist society has grown to depend on them, and we’ve grown to love ’em and hate ’em all at the same time.

I truly wish there was a quick and easy solution to the problem, but I just don’t see one, especially in such rough economic times. In this case, the Butterfly probably isn’t doing as well as it once did considering that people have less and less disposable income to spend, and someone has the money to buy them out and build something else. And if smaller, locally owned businesses aren’t getting enough local business because they’d rather go to a Menards than, say, Warren Pipe and Supply, what can be done?

At the very least, you’d have to find ways to encourage people to shop small and locally (and also possibly spend more), as well as find ways to discourage stores like this from opening in the first place, such as zoning restrictions, the institution of a tax on giant retailers, etc. The former is difficult to maintain, however; and the latter is unpopular because it’d mean more government ‘interference’ in the private sector (a huge buzzword these days).

The way I see it, this is essentially the legacy of the suburban consumerist lifestyle that has been championed and pursued by white, middle America for the past 40 years, and it’s going to be an extremely difficult trend to reverse.

A return to urbanism may possibly be the eventual cultural reaction that reverses it, however, with cities’ unique characters and businesses drawing in people who are tired of having a Menards, Home Depot, and Lowes within a 4 mile radius (which could be good for cities like Detroit in the long run if such a shift manages to take place and is able to be sustained over a number of years), with this attitude spreading out and reverberating back into the suburbs.

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