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The Urbanistas versus Big-Box Retail

Why are so many urban planners (1), environmentalists (2) and new urbanists - who I will collectively refer to as the "Urbanistas" for the purposes of this essay - so hostile about big-box retail (3)?
The rhetoric of an organization called Sprawl-Busters is typical, "Retail redundancy, which accelerated in the 1980s, but became grotesque in the 1990s, has created thousands of accidental activists - people who never planned on fighting off a multinational corporation - determined to stop a problem too swollen to hide anymore. We can hear the sound of land being chewed up by the yellow corporate caterpillars. There, squatting on the edge of our community, we can see the problem. We pass it on our way to and from work".
Well, may be it's time we take a more objective look at what the real issues are.

What is Big-Box?
There are four groups of big-box retailers (4). There are discount stores, specialty stores, warehouse clubs and outlet stores.

  • Discount stores sell department store merchandise at low prices. Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target are examples of this type. They tend to sell up to as many as 60,000 distinct items.
  • Specialty stores - also labeled as "category killers" - are large specialty retailers that buy and sell in huge volumes at low prices. Prices are further reduced by eliminating middleman charges and dealing directly with product manufacturers. Examples include Toys R Us, Circuit City, Barnes & Noble, Home Depot and Staples.
  • Warehouse clubs are membership shopping clubs that offer a variety of goods, often including groceries, electronics, clothing, hardware, and more, at wholesale prices. Unlike discount department stores, warehouse clubs limit their range to 3,000 to 5,000 items. Sam's Club, Costco and Pace dominate this industry.
  • Outlet stores, ranging from are typically the discount arms of major department stores such as Nordstrum or J.C. Penney. In addition, manufactures such as Nike, Bass Shoes and Burlington Coat Factory have such retail outlets.
  • Collections of such superstores are called "power centers".

Retail Evolution
At each step of the evolution of retail sales some group started saying "The sky is falling". Retail in America started out with tradesmen and farmers who each did their own thing locally by hand or horse. As America became more civilized, the distribution of goods started showing up in local general stores and in frontier forts. The more urban areas had department stores. I am sure the Sears and Roebuck catalogue resulted in local shopkeepers screaming they would be ruined (not to mention the end of the toilet paper industry). The post-war shopping mall craze allowed small businesses to come together in a single climate controlled building under one roof. The malls were also criticized by the Main Street shopkeepers as the end of downtowns. Big-box retail is merely one more transformation in the American retail experience.

And don't forget the Internet. The Internet is the modern day Sears and Roebuck catalogue and the big-box companies are very worried because the question for the consumer is cost versus convenience. For light weigh items like CDs, videos, printer ink cartridges and books, it means companies like Amazon could permanently steal some of big-box retail's market share. That means big-box retail could be faced with being selling pop, beer and patio sets.

Big-Box Bashing
The bad boy of big-box retail is certainly Wal-Mart. And one can argue that they have earned the scorn of a lot of folks. But what about big-box retail businesses like Target, Home Depot and Costco? Why are they inherently bad? Here are some of the major complaints about big-box retailers that can be found on the Internet:

  • They are exporting American jobs to places like the Peoples Republic of China (70% of what Wal-Mart sells is made in China)(5).
  • They underpay and under insure their employees.
  • Their construction is void of any architectural merit and detracts from a community's sense of place.
  • They destroy small businesses which make up 99.7 percent of all American employers (6).
  • Small towns are said to lose up to half of their retail trade after 10 years of big-box retail moving in (7).
  • They cost local government more in services than they produce in taxes.

Certainly big-box retail generates more traffic to a single location. That is why they are considered regional attractors. However, it can also be argued that big-box generates less traffic overall because it allows for one-stop shopping. You can buy your groceries, drop off your film, get your prescription and a movie in one trip. Also, having one large parking lot - instead of many small ones - only gives the illusion of "sprawl."

Those who take on big-box retail have a plethora of techniques to defeat big-box coming to town or to blunt its impact. The most common are to limit the square footage of a building in commercial zones and to use design guidelines to make them more attractive (and expensive). Citizen activists will use either the referendum to defeat big-box at the ballot box, or try intimidating locally elected officials into just saying "no".

Symbolism over Substance
Unfortunately, too often people blur the line between land use issues and social issues. These days big-box is intentionally being associated with "suburban sprawl". But the illusion created by special-interest propaganda is the real issue. It is not necessarily about the economic or social reality. What we really have going on is the usual symbolism over substance tactics that are typical of many anti-growth organizations. Americans believe in a free citizenry and a free market economy. However, the Urbanistas do not believe in a free market when it comes to big box retail and they want citizens to live in their urban design fantasy land. They believe Americans need to be forced to live Potemkin villages reminiscent of the movie "The Truman Show".

In order for these social engineers to attract financial supporters and sympathetic voters, they use pejorative labels like "sprawl," "big-box" or "McMansion" and "category killers". They intentional play on the average citizen's distrust of corporate American and their tendency to say "Not in my back yard" in the face of any community change. That's why I chose the word "Urbanistas." It is the Spanish word for "city planners" and it implies an association with the Marxist Sandinistas and it is intentionally meant to be a perjorative label.

In my opinion, the "Urbanistas" (8) need to start dealing with the retail reality that Main Street America literally buys into big-box retail, and dump their negative rhetoric and their unsellable political agenda. May be they should take a tip from big-box retail and actually give American citizens something they actually care about. Like a political agenda that has an actual tangible value.

To paraphrase the best line from the movie "The American President" (1995), "I've been operating under the assumption that the reason the Urbanistas devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that they simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. The Urbanistas problem isn't that they don't get it. Their problem is that they can't sell it".

(8) Urbanista is Spanish for city planner.