"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Do Liberals Hate Big Box Stores?

A close friend of mine is a passionate supporter of local businesses, and feels that they are the heart and soul of the community.  He buys from them and pays more than from supermarkets because he wants to keep them alive.  He is financially well-off compared to the many low-income residents of the community, and is willing to spend a few extra dollars to keep small, local retailers in business.  These small establishments, of course, primarily serve wealthy, retired residents of the town like him, so the virtuous circle is small and privileged; but the grocers, meat markets, and bakeries and their customers are happy.

Most of the lower-income residents of the town, of course, drive twenty miles on the Interstate to the big box stores, filling the pickup with a week’s supply of meat, fruit, vegetables, and home supplies for a fraction of what they would have to pay in their town.  Because of their volume these large chain stores can negotiate favorable deals with suppliers and can pass on the savings to customers.  Big box stores, located outside high-rent downtown areas also benefit from tax breaks offered by local jurisdictions because of the new jobs they bring to the community.  Large stores on commercial strips and in malls offer ample free parking and proximity to other low-price retail establishments, gas stations, movie theatres, and restaurants.  Not only can the resident of Dry Gulch do a week’s shopping at an affordable price, but can gas up, see a blockbuster, and eat at McDonald’s.

Supermarkets are very canny marketers.  They never rest on their laurels and on the assumption that demand will remain constant. In an article in The Telegraph (3.7.13) Henry Wallop writes about the enticing changes being made on the British scene:

One of the reasons we return to supermarkets week after week is because they are not that unpleasant to shop in. Neil Saunders says: “There has been a greater trend towards authenticity in recent years. That’s why you see far more deli counters, chalked-up offers above the fish counter, break-out coffee shops, wooden floors. It’s all about moving away from the supermarkets’ heritage of sterile, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap, and trying to bring some of the high street into the stores.”

Diversity of choice is another reason why shoppers prefer shopping at supermarkets.  Sainsbury’s, a large food chain in the UK sells an approximately 30,000 different products in its stores.  While most consumers have narrowed their own personal list to 300, each shopper has their own 300.

Large stores can offer specials, sales, coupons, and welcome-back deals:

Justin King, Sainsbury’s chief executive, boasts of how the supermarket keeps shoppers coming back with its Nectar card. For instance, a shopper who usually buys a pizza and a four-can pack of beer on a Friday night, but suddenly doesn’t one week, will be offered – on a Friday night – a coupon for discounted beer or snacks. The coupon, printed out at the till, is tailored just for that shopper, designed to prompt them to feel kindly towards the company.

Morrison's discovered that 30 per cent of its shoppers run out of disposable income by pay day, after it noticed that customers stock up on large, boring, bulky items like loo roll and washing powder at the end of the month, shortly after being paid. This explains post-pay day discounts on such items.

In the United States many formerly middle-income stores like Giant and A&P are upgrading their stores to look and feel like Whole Foods which has revolutionized the supermarket experience by providing organic and often local foods, assuring freshness in fruits, vegetables, and fish, and by offering a wide selection of gourmet food items.  Although many customers complain that they have to make an additional stop at Superfresh to pick up laundry soap and paper towels, this lack of pedestrian items adds to the cachet of the store.

If stores like Whole Foods and their many imitators nipping at their heels can provide top-grade meats, fresh fish, and crisp, just-harvested fruits and vegetables from around the world, why would anyone shop at small, independent stores?

Large supermarkets appeal to both low- and high-income consumers, both of whom prefer the convenience, diversity, and price competitiveness to that of local stores.  Not only that, there is great price and value difference among the growing number of large stores.  In one small Mississippi town there was everything from Kroger, the highest-price food store, to Wal-Mart which offers cheaper food and a wide variety of everything else, to Sunshine, offering even lower prices; Piggly Wiggly, a bit of a drive but cheaper still.

Non-food stores are no different, and out on the strip one can find the gamut of clothing retail, everything from the recognized higher end establishments to Family Dollar and my favorite, Dirt Cheap.  The downtown of this small Mississippi town is hemorrhaging retail, for the lowest-income consumers who consider the price of gas in their purchase decisions, hightail it out to Dirt Cheap because the prices are indeed unbelievably low.  The fact that they are cheap, sweatshop items of the lowest quality doesn’t matter for those on the economic margins.

Even in France, the last bastion of small-business shopping, where the ritual of a trip to the boulangerie, fromagerie, boucherie, triperie, and march√© au poissons was a daily affair, is changing.  Parisians both high and low are finding it impossible to spend so much time fondling pears, sniffing cheese, and ogling fish when food of almost the same quality can be found at local supermarkets.  

So why do liberals cry out against supermarkets and big box stores?  After all, they are serving the poor and disadvantaged.  It is simply a desire to retain the privileged buying that they have come to call their own.  Of course it is more pleasant to shop in a local grocery store, chat with the owner, and discuss provenance, terroir, and water management; and even more pleasant to chat with the owners of several establishments.  But not if you work two jobs, have a marginal income, no health insurance, and two young children. 

I have a friend who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, and he has been at the forefront of an anti-development movement.  He and his equally passionate neighbors are bound and determined to keep the Vineyard the way it always was and to keep out the voracious, predatory “New York” interests from building anything on the island.  Although many of the older families after the death of the patriarch want to sell their properties to the highest bidder, preservationists are winning out.  The Vineyard is not just any piece of New England real estate, they claim, but a place of special cultural value which should never be altered.  What the traditionalists do not explicitly say is that they want to preserve an old WASP enclave of culture, arts, and society.

There is nothing wrong with this argument, and the successful fight to keep the Vineyard Old Money, Old School, and very liberal is very democratic and very grass-roots American.  It is no different from liberals who want to preserve the small, independent grocer and butcher.  Ugly big-box stores on ugly strip malls carrying ugly products are not their – or my – ideal of a nice place to shop, no matter how much fine mist is sprayed on the broccoli and track lighting is put over the racks of Chinese-made underwear.

There is no inherent value in the small-town, independent grocer, nor in a vibrant downtown, nor in a non-plastic, leafy, 19th century, literary enclave.  Economics and demographics rule and should rule.  America is most definitely a middle class country with millions of people who work hard for little, refuse welfare and entitlements, who are happy for an occasional trip to McDonald’s, and who are grateful for the big boxes out on the highway.  There is room for both, and if wealthy residents of a community choose to spend their money to preserve an antique vision of American life, all well and good; and if the struggling middle class values price over quality, so be it as well. 

Nothing is static, no lines are permanently drawn, and all borders are permeable.  The insistence of the wealthy minority on food quality, diversity, and locality has had an impact far down the socio-economic scale; and eventually as incomes rise at lower levels, and time becomes more flexible, then shoppers will leave Dirt Cheap for something a bit better, will ditch the cornmeal and fatback for organically-raised salmon, and eat fresh green beans instead of DelMonte.

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