As holiday shoppers continue to sprint toward late December, bags overflowing with Best Buy CDs, Target clothes and Home Depot tools, some financial gurus and small business owners are screeching to a halt. For yet another year, they say, the super chains that rule American consumers are raking in tons of dough while mom-and-pop shops see less business.
Over Thanksgiving, the National Retail Federation expected more than 100 million Americans to bargain hunt, and it estimated holiday spending this year will total nearly $440 billion – the lion’s share of that money surely going to big box stores like Wal-Mart. The New York Times reported Monday that Wal-Mart saw 10 million shoppers flood its stores before noon on Black Friday.
A New Jersey newspaper, The Record, last month chronicled Wal-Mart’s impact on shopping trends. According to the report, the world’s largest retailer sells more products than Home Depot, Target, Costco, Sears and Kmart combined.
The report also quoted Ken Stone, an Iowa State University economics professor who has studied the chain for more than 20 years and its impact on local businesses in Iowa for a decade. He found that most local stores lost a quarter of their business within five years of a Wal-Mart opening in the area.
But, as evidenced by another holiday shopping spree at major chains, American consumers continue to patronize big box stores that run small shops out of business and, like Wal-Mart, have sketchy histories in hiring illegal immigrants and squelching unionization efforts.
So why does Wal-Mart work? Simple, says New York Times reporter Joseph Nocera. Many Americans opt for large chains when buying everything from groceries to Barbie dolls for one reason: we love a bargain.
“Many of us who would choose not to have a Wal-Mart in our backyard still can’t resist shopping there once it opens,” Nocera wrote in a business article earlier this month. “Wal-Mart’s growth is a direct result of its understanding of that fundamental fact. Do we really want to change Wal-Mart? If the answer truly is yes, then we need to change ourselves first.”
What that means is American shoppers – including poor college students looking for a deal – need to make a value judgment. Is supporting stores that make our towns distinguishable from the next more important than saving a few bucks on shampoo? We’re still not sold on either argument.
Sure, it’s likely better to shop around and buy free trade products from a company that doesn’t use child labor that doesn’t outsource jobs that doesn’t …
But it’s also nice if working-class parents can buy cheap and convenient presents for their children during the holidays.
Until some divine answer solves the polemic, we’ll take the side of shopper Phyllis Kaplan.
“I love the idea of people saving money,” she said to The Record. “I just don’t like the idea of what it takes to do it.”