Seeing the real America at the ER Saturday at 10 PM and Walmart Sunday at 8 PM

I visited both of these locations in recent weeks and was intrigued to see the mix of people at each. I’ll make a quick case for why these locations could provide as good cross-section of America as any other location:

  1. Limited options. For the emergency room on a Saturday night, there are few other medical options available at that time. If anyone has a medical issue, they will end up here. As for Walmart on Sunday evening, there are limited brick and mortar shopping options and the work week is about to start.
  2. People need medical care and grocery/home items. Both locations have people trying to meet basic human needs. Even as online shopping may allow people to avoid other shoppers and online medical consultations are now available, there are inevitably moments where running out to a store or medical professional is necessary. It is hard to imagine either of these facilities disappearing completely (even if the number of retailers is severely reduced).
  3. Connected to #1 and #2 above, people of differences races, ethnicities, and social classes are at both locations. In many other locations, whether due to residential location, the location of jobs, ill will toward others, or access to resources, not all groups are represented. Sociologist Elijah Anderson wrote a book about such rare urban locations.

While these may not be the best locations in which to conduct research, they could offer insights into typical American life.

Can you be opposed to Walmart in your community but not Amazon?

Alana Semuels compares the fight of Greenfield, Massachusetts and other New England towns against Walmart and other big box stores to a struggle with shopping on Amazon. The story begins and ends with an activist who led the fight in Greenfield against Walmart:

Al Norman has been fighting to keep Walmart and other big-box retailers out of small towns like this one for 25 years. He’s been successful in Greenfield, his hometown and the site of his first battle with Walmart, and in dozens of other towns across the country—victories he documents on his website Sprawl-Busters, an “International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information.” Partly because of Norman’s efforts to keep out such stores, Greenfield still has a Main Street with dozens of businesses, including a bookstore, a record store, and Wilson’s, one of the last independently owned department stores in the country.

But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce…

But the challenge posed by online shopping to local businesses is immense. Even Al Norman, who refuses to shop at Walmart, says he doesn’t have the same aversion to Amazon, in part because he thinks the internet is the future of shopping. His wife has a Prime account, and he recently ordered tea from the website when he couldn’t find it locally, he said, adding that he has no plans to organize protests or zoning meetings about Amazon. He doesn’t love the idea that some of his money is going to Jeff Bezos, “the richest human around,” as he refers to the Amazon founder, and so still shops locally whenever possible. He doesn’t know whether he’ll still be doing that in a decade. When he launched the first campaign against Walmart in Greenfield 25 years ago, he led activists with bumper stickers that said, “If you build it, we won’t come.” He knows the same can’t be said for Amazon, because shoppers, including him, are already there.

Can a community oppose Walmart and not Amazon? Here are some of the common complaints against Walmart and other big box retailers:

  1. Land use, particularly the large parking lots and the contribution to sprawl and driving as well as issues with water and open space.
  2. A negative influence on local businesses. Walmart’s prices and options made it an attractive place to shop compared to local small businesses.
  3. A detrimental effect on local social life, ranging from decaying downtowns that used to be at the center of civic life to low wage jobs affecting health care systems and local wealth.
  4. The wealth generated by large corporations located somewhere else with little visible impact on communities where stores are located.

Do these same concerns apply to Amazon? They could: Amazon’s warehouses and other facilities take up space, it certainly affects local businesses, it encourages less social interaction as you can shop from home, and Amazon has tremendous revenues (and its founder, like the Waltons, have tremendous wealth). But, it seems like the fact that Amazon is “somewhere else” compared to the big box stores – the physical footprint of Amazon touches fewer communities that all the locations of Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and others – means that people can support it without feeling as bad about its negative effects on communities. Because it is viewed as being online, Amazon is an issue for only some communities and not many.

Yet, I think an argument could be made that Amazon and other online retailers can shape local conditions even more than big box stores or other local retailers. The Internet makes it possible to act as if we are in a completely placeless world (even though this is not true) and to leave certain problems for others to solve in other places. Only in certain circumstances, like when cities fight to offer Amazon a great tax break or deal in order to become home to a second headquarters or groups in Silicon Valley express frustration about mammoth tech headquarters, are we reminded that even Internet companies affect communities.

To be consistent, big box retailers and Internet retailers both threaten local communities and smaller businesses. One may be more obvious than others and they offer different kinds of conveniences but both can contribute to a less civically minded and placed America.

Amazon jobs vs. no jobs in American cities and suburbs

With Amazon expanding in many locations across the United States, are these the kinds of jobs communities should seek? Here is the conclusion of one recent discussion of the issue:

It’s true that cities desperate for jobs may find it difficult to attract companies if they pass minimum-wage mandates or other labor laws. But the alternative, it seems, is jobs that don’t create a middle-class lifestyle for residents, which in turn affects local spending, the housing market, the tax base, and leads to a poor standard of living. Many cities, San Bernardino included, are calculating that any job creation is good news. They may soon find that with Amazon, that calculation does not apply.

This is not a new issue although Amazon might be the most visible manifestation of concerns right at the moment. Walmart has and still does face such questions. Fast food and retail jobs as larger categories attract this scrutiny at points.

For two reasons, I do not see most American communities during down these jobs, even if they are not ideal or even good positions of employment.

  1. Every politician from the local to federal level wants to promote job creation. It is still hard to have a deeper conversation about the kinds of jobs being created. What tends to matter are the numbers. If you are the politician who can claim adding jobs (and very rarely is this the result of one person or a short process), you have a powerful political weapon.
  2. What is the alternative to not accepting these jobs? Companies might move right over the border. This happened in Chicago when they insisted on certain with Walmart. The company responded by opening locations right over the border and the jobs and revenues went to other communities. If a community turns down jobs, will they be able to attract others? Until we have either regional cooperation where sets of communities set these conditions or states pass overarching regulations (or a third option of universal basic income?), individual communities will be forced to make tough decisions: promoting less than ideal jobs or possibly having no jobs.

This issue will continue whether with Amazon or other companies.

The suburban expansion strategy of Sears in the 1920s

In an intriguing article comparing the rise of Sears and Amazon, Derek Thompson explains how Sears expanded from a mail-order business to physical stores:

In the early 1920s, Sears found itself in an economy that was coming off a harsh post-World War recession, according to Daniel M. G. Graff and Peter Temin’s essay “Sears, Roebuck in the Twentieth Century.” The company was also dealing with a more lasting challenge: the rise of chain stores. To guide their corporate makeover, the company tapped a retired World War I general named Robert Wood, who turned to the U.S. Census and Statistical Abstract of the United States as a fount of marketing wisdom. In federally tabulated figures, he saw the country moving from farm to city, and then from city to suburb. His plan: Follow them with stores.

The first Sears stores opened in the company’s existing mail-order warehouses, for convenience’s sake. But soon they were popping up in new locations. Not satisfied with merely competing with urban department stores like Macy’s, Wood distinguished new Sears locations by plopping them into suburbs where land was cheap and parking space was plentiful….

The company’s brick-and-mortar transformation was astonishing. At the start of 1925, there were no Sears stores in the United States. By 1929, there were 300. While Montgomery Ward built 90 percent of its stores in rural areas or small cities, and Woolworth focused on rich urban areas, Sears bet on everything—rural and urban, rich and poor, farmers and manufacturers. Geographically, it disproportionately built where the Statistical Abstract showed growth: in southern, southwestern, and western cities.

So what is the equivalent today of the burgeoning suburbs of the 1920s in terms of locations? The end of the article hints at one option:

Amazon, too, will thrive as long as it uses American demographics as a roadmap and takes advantage of new personal technology, like mobile phones for shopping and AI assistants for the home. In the last six months, Amazon has spent $13 billion to buy Whole Foods and its upscale urban locations. At the same time, it has offered discounts for low-income shoppers to become Prime subscribers.

Locating in wealthy communities is an interesting strategy. Other major popular retailers today are following such a model: think of Apple stores (perhaps another reason they cannot truly be town squares if they are primarily in wealthy areas) and Starbucks locations (less exclusive than Apple but still located within reach of wealthier customers or along well-trafficked roadways – see all 11 locations in the wealthy suburb of Naperville). Could we end up with a bifurcated retailing model where the wealthy (and those who can travel to these locations) can shop at a bricks and mortar store while the majority of Americans primarily shop online? This might be an overlooked edge for Walmart at this point: Amazon may rule online but Walmart stores, like Sears, are where many more typical Americans are and it may take some time to switch loyalty.

A new suburban Walmart comes with tax revenue, crime, and economic development

How exactly does a new Walmart change a suburb? Here are at least a few factors to consider:

From its opening day to June 30, 2017, officers responded to 445 calls for service at Walmart, 166 of which resulted in arrests, according to records obtained by the Daily Herald. That means police were called to the store an average 1.2 times per day in its first year…

Walmart announced in 2012 its plans to close an East Dundee store and build the Carpentersville supercenter less than three miles away, prompting a lengthy legal battle between the company and the two villages. Walmart is expected to receive $4.3 million in tax increment financing funds ­– property taxes above a certain point in the area that would have gone to local governments — for the new store…

Though he declined to disclose specific sales numbers, Rooney said the new Carpentersville store has generated more sales tax revenue than East Dundee reported losing…

Already, the supercenter has significantly increased traffic and economic interest on the village’s east side, he said. Plans are moving forward for constructing a new five-tenant building and an O’Reilly Auto Parts on the store’s outlots.

To be honest, many suburbs cannot afford not to welcome Walmart into their communities. It is rare to find a user for a decent sized portion of land along a major road that will bring in so much tax revenue and provide jobs. The increase in crime can be chalked up as simply part of doing major retail business (I assume there may be bumps with other major retailers or shopping malls) and may not be a huge issue if it is largely isolated to the Walmart site.

In the long run, there are additional factors to consider including the local business climate with the behemoth Walmart in town (more competition for certain businesses), the opportunity cost of what else might have operated on that site, and the image of having a Walmart and related businesses. There is a reason more exclusive communities turn down big box stores and large strip mall areas. Furthermore, the fate of East Dundee could soon befell Carpentersville; if Walmart eventually wants a better deal or a bigger store, they can simply move and bring their benefits (and problems) to a different suburb.

As I suggested above, given these short-term and long-term outlooks, most American suburbs would choose to welcome Walmart. From whence the Walmart came does not matter while the tax receipts can be blinding to many.

What if the best single display of America is Walmart?

In making several trips to Walmart in advance of Christmas, I found myself marveling several times at the store. Here are some reasons why this retail giant may be the best single illustration of America today:

  1. Consumerism rules. Each Walmart has so much stuff, from groceries to auto parts to Christmas trees to dinnerware. And Americans like this stuff even more if it is reasonably priced.
  2. On the flip side of consumerism, how can one company coordinate all that manufacturing and shipping to get items to each store? Walmart’s rise is due in part to their logistical abilities.
  3. Walmart is a great place to find stuff with which to go overboard for whatever holiday is coming up. Americans love Christmas, Halloween, Fourth of July, Easter…
  4. Walmarts generally require customers to drive there, often due to their locations in suburban or rural areas, the need for a good chunk of land, and helping shoppers to transport all the stuff they buy.
  5. Because of the prices and locations, Walmarts tend to attract a diverse set of shoppers.
  6. The company does not let workers unionize.
  7. The Sam Walton story is not exactly rags to riches but it does suggest that a hard worker with some new ideas can make something big of himself.
  8. Everyone has to eat and Walmart is the largest grocery chain in the United States.
  9. It is an iconic American brand though it hasn’t exactly caught on around the world like others (such as Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Nike).
  10. Everyone seems to have an opinion about its merits or flaws. Still, according to the company, “Every week more than 60 percent of Americans shop at Walmart.”
  11. It is convenient and ubiquitous for many: “About 90 percent of Americans live within 15 minutes of a Walmart store.
  12. The company’s size is hard to fathom:

    “And Wal-Mart’s heft is not just financial, it’s physical too. Its 4,600+ U.S. stores occupied almost 700 million square feet. That’s roughly enough space for 11,800 football fields. That means the entire population of Buffalo, New York, could suit up, split into teams and play football against each other simultaneously in Wal-Marts across the country.

    The company’s total revenue for fiscal 2016 was $482.1 billion. That’s enough to buy a gallon of milk every day for every person in Brazil for two years, based on the $2.89 price per gallon at the North Bergen, New Jersey, Wal-Mart.

    Wal-Mart’s costs and expenses hit $458 billion for the year, which is bigger than the budgets of all but four U.S. government departments. Here’s what the rankings would be:

    1) Health and Human Services
    2) Social Security
    3) Treasury
    4) Defense
    5) Wal-Mart.”

For better or worse, is Walmart America?

Adaptations to Walmart leaving communities

Joel Kotkin considers the fate of smaller communities where Walmart has decided to close stores:

None of this suggests that the retreat of big boxes from smaller towns and some urban areas will be painless. Yet those who see this trend as the harbinger of the end of malls or Main Streets may be in for a surprise. Rather than die off, bricks-and-mortar shopping will change, adding new elements and moving from ever greater uniformity to more variety and differentiation, which are critical to independent business’s survival. Much of this change will take place in small towns, but also in suburban areas, which have long been the happy hunting ground of big boxes.

Why not in the big cities? One of the chief ironies of our times is that chains and their attendant sameness now define much of our most sophisticated urban core—Starbucks on every corner, global brands and restaurants serving the same trendy cuisine. The recovery of large cities, suggests New York researcher Sharon Zukin, has also made them more alike by “bringing in the same development ideas—and the same conspicuous textual allusions and iconic corporate logos inevitably affixed to downtown architectural trophies—to cities across the globe.” Efforts to make the city “safer and less strange to outsiders’ eyes”—tourists, expatriates, media producers, and affluent consumers—are making one global city barely indistinguishable from another…

Some small towns—and suburbs even more so—will be transformed by immigrants and millennials, who may want to set up their own unique shops along the very Main Streets once targeted by firms like Walmart. In wealthier communities, this may mean more boutiques and high-end restaurants. But among less affluent areas, other institutions, such as cooperatives—300 already nationwide and another 250 on the way, as well as farmers markets—could provide some of the products that many once found at Walmart…

As the retail world become more digitally focused, and less big-box-dominated, there is a golden opportunity to restore the geographic and local diversity that has seemed doomed for nearly a half-century, but now may enjoy a new burst of life.

There is little doubt that the retail industry will continue to change. Walmart and other large corporations may seem inevitable today but they didn’t exist decades ago and may not have much presence in the future. Yet, Kotkin seems pretty optimistic about online retail which requires its own set of adjustments as well as infrastructure that could be threatened in the future.

For small towns and many suburbs, do these future changes leave much space for residents themselves to create and experience local differences? On one hand, online retail offers customization yet relies on large companies located elsewhere and on the other hand, local diversity in things like restaurants and small stores draws upon local entrepreneurs. Is the secret to promote an experienced based consumption – local culture and food – as opposed to decades of goods based consumption?