At first glance, Westbrook must have seemed a likely location for southern Maine’s next Wal-Mart. The multinational retail chain announced in 2003 that it intended to build a 203,000-square-foot “Supercenter” on a site near the downtown, formerly occupied by the Saunders Brothers wood-products plant. The Saunders family was up for the sale, the city’s economic development director held preliminary conversations with Wal-Mart’s people, and Westbrook was in the unique position of being both hungry for jobs and conveniently located in the state’s most affluent county.
BOXED IN: Chains proliferate in Maine. Source: Each company
But three years later, after residents opposed to the big-box chain successfully pressured the Westbrook city council to restrict retail behemoths to a mere 160,000 square feet, the Saunders site remains untouched. A spokesman explained in an e-mail to the Phoenix this week that the company “is still evaluating our options.”
While it appears Westbrook has slowed the advance of the world’s largest big-box retailer, other cities and towns in America and around the world have not. That includes Scarborough, where a 212,000-square-foot Supercenter is under construction just across the street from a 100,000-square-foot building that was Maine’s first Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart, the original global “megachain,” has stores on four continents and makes a fifth of its $315 billion annual revenue outside the US. It’s joined by plenty of other chain retailers — like Costco, Home Depot, Starbucks, and Blockbuster — hawking goods from Buenos Aires to Beijing. But it is in America, the birthplace of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, that megachains have their tightest grip.
And it’s on America’s chain retailers, their influence on domestic and global economies, and the grassroots efforts to fight them that Portland author and activist Stacy Mitchell focuses in her second book, Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, published this month by Beacon Press.
Since 1997, Mitchell, a senior researcher and expert on corporate retail for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in Minnesota, has advised citizens’ groups around the country on crafting land-use policies and economic-development strategies to protect independent businesses. Mitchell, who published the book Hometown Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why it Matters with ILSR in 2000, managed an independent coffee shop in St. Paul in 1996 that itself was threatened by incoming chains like Starbucks. She now chairs the American Independent Business Alliance. Big-Box Swindle details a story of power and resistance Mitchell believes hasn’t been told.
“I wanted to . . . expose the hidden costs of chain retailers,” explained the author from her office on Munjoy Hill. “But, equally as important, I also wanted to write about the growing number of communities around the country that are saying no to this kind of retail development, that are actively working to revive local, independent businesses.”
As Mitchell describes it, the United States economy was mostly a localized one before the 1950s, when huge tax breaks for retailers built our suburban malls and created a haven for chain stores. American consumers today enjoy a sort of masochistic love affair with chain retailers — up for the quick, cheap fling, but blind to the long-term devastation the relationship will likely produce. Since 1996, the top ten global chains (half of which are American) have more than doubled their global market share and now account for almost 30 percent of the more than $2.3 trillion Americans spend in retail every year. The largest of these giants, Wal-Mart, pocketed one out of every ten dollars Americans spent in 2005 and has accepted more than $1 billion in local and state subsidies since the early 1990s. The store’s business strategy hinges on becoming the ultimate one-stop shopping experience to the exclusion of all major retailers in a community. Nationally, Wal-Mart sells 27 percent of toys, 31 percent of DVDs, 18 percent of cameras and film, and a third of all household staples (like toothpaste and soap) that American households purchase annually. In some states, though not yet in Maine, Wal-Mart has added gas stations to its superstores, many of which have already added groceries to their basic offerings. Mitchell asserts that Wal-Mart, along with other corporate chains, prices items below independent competitors long enough to drive them out of business or weaken them considerably, before raising prices to rates often higher than independents would charge. Communities bereft of local competition end up needing Wal-Mart more than it needs them. This equals bad news for consumers and great news for shareholders.
Big-Box Swindle, packed with detailed research and anecdotes strong enough to spin even the most ardent skeptic, connects Wal-Mart and its other bloated business peers to the nation’s struggling downtowns, environmentally-deadly urban sprawl, and declining quality of craftsmanship. Focusing much of her efforts on the heavy hitters with thousands of outlets, Mitchell analyzes how big boxes and corporate chains target communities for maximum profit, erecting massive stores thanks to multimillion-dollar tax breaks from local governments, and abandoning locations without a second thought should the retail winds change.