Sprawl and Small Businesses
During the past 15 years, I have seen my once-rural hometown of Washington Township transform into a maze of single-family housing developments and strip malls. This type of growth has not been gentle on the local economy, especially small businesses. Stores such as the mom and pop hardware store, a local mainstay for many decades, have been forced out of business by the construction of two Home Depots and a Lowe’s within a two-mile radius of the town’s main street. This negative aspect of sprawl has been a trend that has repeated itself nationwide in recent years.
Mega chain stores, or big boxes, are a phenomenon that has spread all over the country, and has exploded in popularity in recent years. Contributing to this phenomenon are monster chain stores, such as Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Target, Kmart and Best Buy. The success of these stores has depended upon the saturation of the retail market in areas where they are built. For instance, Wal-Mart’s strategy of store placement is such that in urban areas, stores are placed within a 10-mile radius of each other and a 30-mile radius is created in rural areas. (sprawl-busters.com/hometown.html) The density of store placement can vary, depending on the presence of competitors in the area. By saturating the market, these stores are undercutting their competition and making it virtually impossible for their smaller competitors to survive, or even start up in a free-market economy.
In addition to their planning strategy of market dominance, big box stores have other attributes that are difficult to compete with. These attributes are attractive to the consumer, but come at a detrimental price. Low prices, large supply and variety, and extended store hours are qualities that only these mega stores can offer. They thrive on duplicating these qualities in every store regardless of location or demographics of the area. This conditions consumers to shop at their stores because they know what they are going to get and feel comfortable going there. For example, when a family who shopped at the Home Depot in New York moves to Washington Township, they are probably going to shop at the Home Depot there, rather than the local hardware store.
The conditioning, or “brainwashing” as some view it, of customers is evident in the effect on the economy of Mercer County. The proprietor of the former hardware store in Washington Township also owns several other stores in the neighboring towns of Hamilton and Trenton. These surrounding communities have been developed long ago and haven’t seen the recent inflow of new housing and people that Washington has. Many of the people in those towns are working class and have roots in their respective communities. These people continue to support the smaller hardware stores, and business has not been affected after Home Depot and Lowe’s moved in.