Saturday, October 31, 2009

Big-Box Swindle - Part I

Happy Halloween! How appropriate that this is also the day of the first post in the official Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club. Because in many ways, Big-Box Swindles: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses is a scary read. Forget about ghosts and goblins and devils: my vote for scariest Halloween costume would be someone in a Walmart costume (come to think of it, that would be a really easy costume to make....). While much of the book focuses on suburban sprawl and the impact of big-box retail on smaller communities, there's a great deal of content that is relevant to Uptown and surrounding neighborhoods. We can work out the kinks of organizing this sort of discussion as we move forward, but for now my plan is to throw out some initial thoughts based on (or simply inspired by) the book, invite your comments, and in the next week follow up with some more in-depth postings on some of the specific topics.
  • What should the role of chain stores be in Uptown (and Lyn-Lake, or in other surrounding neighborhoods)? Are some chain stores better than others? Are they appropriate in some areas but not in others?
  • What is the thought on big-box development? One negative of Big-Box Swindle was the author's tendency to equate "chains" with "big-box stores," although that's not always the case. What if the big-box store is not a chain? How about Target? It's local; do we want a Target (even if an urban model without the sprawling parking lot) in Uptown?
  • How does Calhoun Square fit into this discussion? Is it part of "Main Street," or is it a mall? Does it matter?
  • How can we, whether at the city, neighborhood, or individual level, support independent businesses? In the grand scheme of Uptown (and Uptown area) priorities, where does this fall as a priority?
  • What current regulations are in place to support independent businesses in Minneapolis? Are there any ordinances on the books that restrict chains ("formula businesses"), and, if not, should there be?
  • How do we bring affordable commercial real estate to the Uptown area?
  • Is there room for a community-owned store in the neighborhood? What about a business incubator space?
  • What sorts of stores or businesses is the Uptown area currently lacking? What gaps do we want filled?

I'm going to come back to this list over the next several days and will write up my own thoughts on specific topics in more depth, as well as try to gather some relevant links and resources. In the meantime, what struck you as worthy of discussion while reading Big-Box Swindle?


  1. Ive been reading for about a week and am only halfway done, but am very impressed with the book so far. One thing that has been particularly interesting to me has been to apply Jane Jacobs' concept of import replacement. If import replacement describes the process by which city economies grow, the inverse of that concept might describe what happens when local businesses are replaced by corporate chains. When a local businesses is replaced by a chain, it is not only the higher paying jobs that are lost, but many other economic transactions that local businesses seek locally but which chains outsource to corporate headquarters.

    I agree with you that the author does not do a great job of distinguishing between "big-box" and "chains." Both are bad for cities to the extent that they drive local small businesses out, but a "chain" can be a smaller store that is well-integrated into a community and built in an urban-friendly.

    It is difficult to determine a "right amount" of chain stores, either for Uptown or for city neighborhoods in general. My gut says that Uptown is moving towards an unhealthy amount of chain stores.

    One positive thing you might say about chain stores is that they have the money to build new buildings, which if done right can be a major improvement. From an urban design and street scape point of view, I think the new Columbia sportswear store is an upgrade over the outdoor patio and parking lot that previously occupied that site. Likewise, the forthcoming redevelopment of Rainbow Foods will add density while creating new building frontage over an entire block that was previously surface parking. Thus you could say that one important role of chains in Uptown is to provide new and improved physical capital to the area, while the role of small local businesses is to occupy and renovate older, historic spaces. Just one way of potentially looking at the relationship.

    Also, fresh off a reading of Big-Box Swindle I wrote this blog post looking at a recent move in St. Paul to deny a new Walgreens:

  2. Thanks for the link on the post about the Walgreens in St. Paul. I remember when there was a Snyder's in Uptown; I'd love to see one of those back. I've been grappling with the Walgreen's issue lately; there's not a lot of options in Uptown currently, and they are filling a need. They also sell some local items (books, calendars, sometimes clothes and touristy items). I've also found it interesting that Walgreen's as a company is increasingly using its history as a marketing tool. I'll have to think about this a little more, and might do a longer post about pharmacies in Uptown. The significance of the shift from independent (or at least local chains) to national chain pharmacies was an issue I hadn't thought about in much depth before reading Big-Box Swindle.

    The point about chains helping with new buildings is a good one. This doesn't hold true in many other cities (when I think of Old Pasadena, for example, many of the chains are in the high-rent restored historic buildings), but it does seem to be the pattern in Uptown. I agree that the Columbia store is an improvement in that space, and could be seen as an example of a way that a chain can contribute positively to the neighborhood.

  3. Okay, so I finally finished the book. Great read.

    There are two main thoughts that kept running through my mind when reading the book: (1) What can and should be done in the short term with regard to urban business districts like Uptown, and (2) how do we change the system so that local, independent businesses can prevail again.

    In the short term, I'm conflicted. On one hand, it's easy to think we should just fight off the chains. On the other hand, chains do occupy space and encourage some people to come out and shop in Uptown. In some cases, they're the only ones selling a particular product. That's not to say that they don't bring their own set of issues, such as taking money out of the community, being less involved in the community, and making the area less unique. Victoria's Secret, for example, provides lingerie that very few other businesses offer. However it defines on of the key intersections in Uptown and they aren't going to attract many people outside of Uptown to the area since it's just a run-of-the-mill Victoria's Secret. (They originally said it'd likely be a rare specialty store VS, but I hardly would consider it that way.)

    It's good that Chains want to be in Uptown because it also means that Uptown has desirable demographics and shopping habits that should support them. Small business owners also look at that data and if it wasn't attractive, fewer would be willing to open or expand their business.

    As a result, much of my thinking has been on how to change the system so that chains don't have such extensive power and how can small businesses regain the ability to compete? Comments in the book about shoring up tax loopholes is a start. Better wages would also be another option.

    I'd also suggest that big boxes do not have a place in our dense neighborhoods, except perhaps grocery stores up to a certain size. In the event there are big users, arranging them so that they aren't on an entire 1st floor would be beneficial.

    I think this book has helped me see that long term there is a chance for reform. It's also made it very clear to me that stores like Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and the like must not be allowed to open stores in Uptown. Their impacts on the community, namely in the form of negatively impacting the local economy, would be incredibly large...potentially putting out of business dozens of businesses.