A price you can see

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday back in the old hometown in mid-Missouri.  My primary goal was to avoid being The Family with the Screaming Child on the Plane, and we were largely successful in that endeavor.  The Better Half and I did most of the cooking, which is our habit and pleasure, though a pumpkin pie had been purchased ahead of time and thus no secret ingredients were on offer this year.  It was a nice trip.

The day after the holiday, my brother and I dragged his girlfriend (who was visiting the town for the first time) on a run downtown.  We ran up the main street and pointed out all the businesses that used to be there when we were kids.  Almost all of them were gone.  In fact, though we went for the run in the mid-afternoon on Black Friday in gorgeous weather, we saw maybe a half-dozen people on the street, tops.  Downtown was, frankly, pretty bleak.

Contrast that with the Wal-mart supercenter where my dad and I went to get last-minute essentials two days before.  The place was bustling, if not packed.  While I didn’t go back the day after Thanksgiving, my guess is that it was pretty busy.

All of this was on my mind as I read E.D.’s post about the hidden costs of buying locally.  He concludes:

So if you save money shopping at big box stores, go spend it doing something fun locally. Just buying goods locally doesn’t guarantee that you’ll help the local economy. Of course there may be some really great local shops that sell things the big boxes don’t carry, or who provide a better customer experience. The point I’m trying to make is simply that it’s never as straightforward as shop local. Sometimes it comes at a price you can’t even see.

I’m happy to concede a lot of points.  First of all, it’s very easy for me to tell people they should shop local.  I was raised in a financially secure household, and I have a good job that pays well now.  Paying a premium to support a local business is not a burdensome cost.  For people who aren’t so lucky, the savings reaped by shopping at a big box store make a meaningful difference in their financial security.  Also, big box stores are convenient.  After all, that’s where we decided to go when we needed a lot of disparate items.  Though the selection was often thin and the quality of products on offer inconsistent, at least they had almost everything we needed in one location.

Obviously, what the people of my hometown want enough to spend their money on it is what Wal-mart and K-mart and Lowe’s have to offer at lower prices than local businesses can match.  That’s the free market.  But the costs are pretty obvious, too.  Where there was once a thriving central business district and another nearby shopping plaza with several successful stores there are now run-down, depressingly empty storefronts.  (In fairness, I should note that there are a few local businesses that seem to be doing well, including a couple of well-established restaurants.)  There just aren’t all that many choices available there, even if one wants to shop local.  The bookstore, hardware store and clothing stores of my childhood are all gone.

I don’t begrudge the people who still live in my hometown their preferences in retail outlet.  Again, if they’d wanted the local businesses to survive they’d have shopped there more.  For my part, the price seems awfully steep.  Even if people wanted to spend the money they’d saved on a fun local option, their choices have gotten pretty thin.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I obviously don’t know anything about your hometown, but how much of this change was caused by Walmart and the other big box stores, and how much were these big box stores just capitalizing on changes already taking place? Perhaps the big boxes just accelerated a trend already taking place.

    What I mean is, if job-supplying industries left your hometown, for example, then people might have found it less economical to keep buying local. I have no idea if this was the case in your hometown, and even if I’m right, such things are not monocausal anyway. Just my thoughts on the matter.

    • Well, look at walmart’s 10Q, in which they detail using food as a loss leader.Wallmart’s increasingly becoming a poor business model.

      • look at walmart’s 10Q, in which they detail using food as a loss leader.Wallmart’s increasingly becoming a poor business model.

        How is that a poor business model for WalMart? And since the poor need food more than anything else, doesn’t that actually work to the benefit of their customers? (FYI: All grocery stores have used loss leaders for years; usually essentials like toothpaste.)

        • grocery stores don’t do it on a main revenue source.
          Wallmart wants to be a one stop shop, where they can get people to buy impulse things that they make tons of profit on. They really aren’t cut out to be a purely grocery store — but Americans increasingly can’t afford to buy both groceries and toys.

          • but Americans increasingly can’t afford to buy both groceries and toys.

            So WalMart’s really doing them a good deal by selling them groceries at below cost, right? You still haven’t explained why it’s not a good business model (for WalMart, at least).

            As to the evils of WalMart, when a hailstorm broke my skylight a few years back and rain began pouring in and down behind my kitchen cupboards, the local hardware store wasn’t open at 12:30 a.m. so I could buy a tarp and ropes. Even Lowes wasn’t. WalMart was, god bless them.

          • James,
            wallmart’s general business model is showing its flaws, as americans continue to become more impoverished (alt: spend more money on healthcare/housing/gas).
            wallmart’s idea of slashing prices on food is a decent business decision.

            As to the evils of Wallmart, my only bitch about them is that they stole intellectual property (JIT).

          • wallmart’s general business model is showing its flaws, as americans continue to become more impoverished (alt: spend more money on healthcare/housing/gas).

            Kimmie, your talent for non-sequiturs is breathtaking.

          • James,
            … don’t tempt me. You should see me when I’m trying…

            Pierre mentioned a trend, I’m merely explicating what, exactly, that trend means.

            That said, all races have a finish line, and we’re nearly at the end of this race to the bottom. But that’s for an actual guest post.

    • Since I haven’t lived in my hometown in nearly twenty years, I’m not the best observer to answer the question. Certainly with regard to the hardware store, it was hanging on until Lowe’s came to town. I suspect that the big box stores accelerated a trend to a certain degree, but it’s striking how rapidly the previously-thriving retail areas went toes-up once they arrived.

      And my hometown is a university town, with the university in question chugging along as well as it ever has. I believe the surrounding areas (which obviously contribute a lot to the local economy) is primarily farming, and cannot comment with any authority on how it’s faring.

  2. To be honest, I don’t see a lack of substantial difference between Walmart and the places I would go if Walmart didn’t exist. Best Buy, Home Depot, Safeway. They all tend to have huge parking lots that keep them from being in the town square, for instance. They’re all national chains, of course. But for me, the important thing is that they’re all open late (or at least usually are, depending on the location). Smaller stores, whether mom and pops or places like Radio Shack, tend to keep more conservative hours.

    That’s how I ended up shopping at Walmart in the first place (at least, when there is one nearby). The price discounts are nice, but I like (a) the longer hours and (b) the one-stop shopping aspect of it more. I’d pay more to shop at a place that treated their employees better if everything else was the same. Of course, such a place wouldn’t be located in the town square, either.

    • After we moved into the house from our apartment and finally, finally, *FINALLY* got the box open that had sheets in it and got the sheets on the bed I realized that I very, very badly needed two things:

      1) a shower curtain
      2) Aleve

      It was 3AM. There was only one place in town that could give me both of those things. I was very, very happy to have one nearby.

    • As I tried to make clear in the OP, I can understand why people like shopping at big box stores, and I don’t fault them for doing so.

      I just wish it didn’t leave my hometown looking so desolate.

      • In 20 years, it will be the art district. There will be fancy restaurants, some of which are actually worth giving your business, and a couple of places that sell local artists’ work, a crazy shop that can only be described as “they sell… stuff… there”, and a few higher end places that sell fancy stationary and maybe a wine shop or a tobacco place.

        This will come about because someone will come up with the bright idea of giving a long term lease on some of the older buildings as an annuity to their favorite grandchild.

      • Your understanding of the convenience factor was noted and appreciated. I was just elaborating.

        On the general subject, I feel where you are coming from. It’s kind of depressing that one in three stores downtown here are closed. When I went out to smoke, I was standing in front of a record store. The exact kind being replaced by Walmarts, Best Buys, and Amazon. I’m not sure how solvent the business is even in places like this (where there are no Walmarts and Best Buys). It’s like, I *hope* they survive because I like the existence of such places (perhaps for mostly nostalgic reasons) and yet at the same time, I don’t hope enough to actually buy records there (I’m all about mp3’s, and before that I ordered online for the most part). The same goes for the town’s sole bookstore (though you can also get books at Safeway).

        This town doesn’t have all that much in the way of big box sort of places, but even here all of the movement is away from downtown. We have a movie rental place (locally owned and operated) that is still thriving, and what do they do with their success? Move from downtown to a bigger place a little further away. A car parts store did the same, both since we moved here. How do you fight that? Hopefully with the sort of kitschy places that Patrick is talking about.

  3. The bookstore, in particular, probably suffered more from online shopping than it did from big box stores. By and large, it’s Amazon that’s killing bookstores, not Walmart.

    • Patrick, I wonder if my town is ahead of its time. At downtown coffee shop looking out, I see: big bar, floral gallery, tiny bar, art gallery, closed bar, photo gallery. On my side of street is (from memory): snake oil shop, closed, closed, coffee shop, used record store.

      • Woops, this comment went to the wrong place. Also, I overlooked a place actually calling itself a gallery but has mostly holiday stuff in its window (santa bears and the like). I also overlooked a saddlery and another closed shop on my side of the street.

    • Fair point, though this particular store had already begun to fade long before the advent of the Internet. (That said, management issues might also have contributed to its demise.)

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