Fighting the ‘big-box swindle’

  • Selma Bonham<br>
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:58am

The book “Big-Box Swindle: the True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses” by Stacy Mitchell could start a discussion by those who are concerned about a sustainable future for Mill Creek and plans for another Wal-Mart.

Many were moved by Barbara Ehrenreich’s experiences working in a Wal-Mart in “Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America.” She concluded, “Something is wrong, very wrong when a single person in good health with a working car can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow…”

Mitchell expands the subject, describing how Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Borders, Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS, led by Wal-Mart, are building bigger stores further away from Main Streets – more than consumers can support. Now retail giants determine what is produced, how and by whom.

Mitchell describes what Mill Creek has experienced: developers unveiling projects as “done deals” which will create jobs. She found mega-chains destroy more jobs than they create, the jobs pay less, have poor or illegal labor policies and employees rarely stay long. Mega-chains are largely responsible for shrinking the middle class, increasing the burden of public assistance and sending jobs overseas where labor is cheap, poverty increasing and lives getting worse. Small farmers suffer when large producers provide a year-round stream of products, shipped long distances, although local products of better quality and comparable prices are available.

Mill Creek citizens concerned about maintaining a police force with good response time are warned by Mitchell of increases in officers’ workload due to traffic, accidents, shoplifting and check fraud associated with big-box stores.

Suburban sprawl, obvious in the Mill Creek area, commonly causes air and water pollution, loss of wildlife habitat, and cumulative effects on climate change. When less profitable outlets are abandoned after a few years, communities have additional blight and expense.

Low prices in big-box stores often are misleading. Consumers don’t check prices, quality and durability of all goods. Discounts on some items are compensated by higher prices on others. Many local pharmacies provide faster service, more expertise, personal attention and home delivery. Specialty stores encourage new authors and artists, and contribute more to local businesses and charities. Decisions made at large company headquarters are comparable to rich colonizers dealing with colonies.

All of these subjects are well documented by Mitchell, who is a senior researcher with the Institute of Local Self-Reliance and chairs the American Independent Business Alliance.

Can the big-box swindle be stopped? Mitchell mentions independent manufacturers who don’t sell to mega-chains. They form alliances to be more competitive. Some citizens do not accept “done deals.” They persist in courts, educate others, set living wages, support local businesses and use of renewable power, set size caps on stores, and avoid the glut of overbuilding and vacant big-boxes. They require community and environmental impact studies.

Selma Bonham is a Mill Creek resident and a member of Citizens for a Better Mill Creek.

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