Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Little boxes made of ticky tacky

As much as it may hurt my anti-establishment cred (as if there's really any of that left), I think I'm coming around on big box stores. Sure, they're soulless, harmful to local businesses and the idea of buying jeans, lawn furniture and iPods in the same store is kind of silly, but they do offer convenience and great prices. And, really, who doesn't like easy shopping and low prices?

On balance (and in economist-speak), I'd say Target, Best Buy, Borders et al have produced net gains in our collective welfare. Which is a good thing, I think. What's more, they're so entrenched in today's consumer culture that fighting them doesn't really seem like the "good fight."

All that said, I still have a special place in my heart for local businesses and do what I can to support them. While big boxes may be great for getting mass produced items on the cheap, customer service is borderline nonexistent and the quality of the goods is questionable, both of which are fine for some things (jeans, lawn furniture, iPods, etc) but not so much for others (bicycles, suits, dinner, etc.).

Of course, over the last several years, we've seen the imbalance between big box, chain retailers and smaller, locally-owned shops grow. This is an unfortunate, but not intractable, situation. See, for instance, Washington DC:

The shells for what will be some of the biggest big-box retailers Columbia Heights has ever known are rising along 14th and Irving streets and Park Road NW. They include Target, Best Buy, and Bed Bath & Beyond .

Yet below these retail giants, space has been reserved for the little guys.

A Peruvian restaurant has signed a lease, as has a local African American franchiser of the Quizno's sandwich chain. A Vietnamese grocer is negotiating to bring a Pho restaurant to the development. A locally owned spa may also come.

The $149.5 million DC USA project is being developed by Grid Properties of New York. President Drew Greenwald said the firm will reserve 15,000 square feet, or about 11 percent, of ground-floor retail space for local and minority-owned businesses, under an agreement with the District to buy and develop the land. He will reduce rents by 30 percent to encourage smaller tenants.

"With all the projects, it is going to be a nice mix," Greenwald said. "It kind of has a little bit of everything."

Throughout the District, developers are carving out space for locally owned or small businesses. While small businesses tend to be riskier bets than their better-financed corporate counterparts are, mixing local and national retailers is a goal of city officials when selling or leasing public land.

So, the circumstances aren't perfectly analogous, but the idea is good, right?

Thanks to Jamie for the link. Also, for more on local restaurants, Jessie's got the scoop.


FreeMarket said...

In fifty years, big boxes will be as irrelevant as malls are today. In the meantime, I feel sorriest for Wal-Mart. No one likes those poor saps. In fact, the recent ad campaigns for Wal-Mart are along the lines of “don’t hate us- look how much money we save you.” One of the things that turned me from the hippie liberal camp was watching an anti-Wal-Mart DVD, something about the “high cost of low prices” and realizing that the most significant arguments against Wal-Mart amount to misunderstandings of economic concepts, particularly free trade. I actually don’t shop there because their stuff sucks, but Wal-Mart is not a bad corporate citizen.

Kem White said...

For me it depends on the box. I pretty much hate Home Depot all the time. Having to search a 10-acre store for something that fits in the palm of my hand. And the "knowledgeable staff" is almost always a joke. It's Clark's for me.

I remember Border's from the '70s when it was a small, narrow bookstore in Ann Arbor back when I was a college student. There's a bittersweet change.

Tom Berkhouse said...


You're truly unbelievable. So, two and half years after tailing against the Crescent Property plan because it was all big box retail (which in fact, was not the case), you now support it. Just in time for the Master Plan for Town Center. I knew it was only a matter of time until you flip flopped on your position. But why? On yes, that's right, that loyalty to your master thing. And by your master, I mean Ken Ulman.

I guess you now also support the conversion of MPP to an indoor/outdoor venue? That of course, was also part of the Crescent Property proposal that you so vigorously opposed. I guess you'll have to retract all the credit you gave yourself for "saving merriwether". You have no spine and no principles. If you did, you couldn't possibly support the proposed Master Plan.

You are right about one thing. YOU HAVE NO "CRED"!

Anonymous said...

Actually Tom,

I believe what was opposed was tearing Merriweather down and building a small enclosed theater. Enclosing the CURRENT Theater just in the Winter was never opposed. Also, Save Merriweather opposed Big Box stores on the Cresent property. They never opposed all Big Boxes stores. They only cared about what would affect Merriweather.

Once again Tom, you don't get it.

Tom Berkhouse said...

Funny - I don't remember GGP actively pursuing tearing down MPP. It's true that the parking lots that serve MPP were going to be constructed over, but the new parking lots could have served the same purpose (shared parking for concert goers at night). A fact that was conveniently left out of the mix when you (whoever you are) and the rest of the Save Merriwether crazies were testifying against the Crescent Property Plan.

Again, it gets back to the inconsistencies in your arguments to oppose the Crscent Plan but support the Town Center plan. Where are the people who testified against the Crescent Property because of its noise and traffic impacts? Why aren't they vehemently opposing the Town Center Plan which creates 10 times as much traffic and noise and overall development?

The main gist of the testimony given by the likes of HD at the Crescent Property hearings centerd on opposition to Big Box Retail. Go back and read the minutes of the meetings.

Where else would big box retail go if not on the Crescent Property?

Your inconsistencies are glaring.

Anonymous said...

You are an idiot Harry, I mean Tom.

"I don't remember GGP actively pursuing tearing down MPP."
Really? Then you obviously have a very bad memory.

There is no point in arguing with someone who doesn't even know the facts.

chris said...

Just to clear the air...

What Hayduke wrote:

I think I'm coming around on big box stores.

What Tom Berkhouse read:

I think I'm coming around on big box stores on the Crescent Property.

Anonymous said...

Remember: Ken Ulman saved Merriweather!


Anonymous said...

If Hayduke didn't mean big box in Town Center, where did he mean? He went on to reference an article about big box in DC (an urban area I believe), so it seems that TB's interpretation has some validity. I'm curious to know.

Anonymous said...

Of the 3 big box stores he mentioned by name, they are all located in the big box mecca that is the Snowden/Dobbin area. He spoke on the macro level about net economic gains.

Why do you feel the need to make this about Town Center?

If you have a bone to pick, why not call out Harold on his repeated attempts to misrepresent and even downright lie about past statements made?

Anonymous said...

Of those three, I believe each was a potential store for the Crscent Property.

Anonymous said...

On top of that, I was just asking a question. I didn't make it about Town Center. TB interpreted it that, so I'm asking you why you think that interp is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Who are you and why are you attempting to out people on this blog site?

I thought you were against such tactics? This isn't the first time that anon commenters here have tried to do it.

pzguru said...

Who is trying to make the connection that I am Tom Berkhouse? I can say that I have spoken openly about many topics and I have leveled criticism at HD when I think it's appropriate, just like he has done towards others. Doesn't TB have the right to do so also?

And, what makes you think TB is just one person? Anyone could comment under that name if they chose to. Just like anyone can comment under the name "Anonymous".

Personally, I think there's a lot of merit to what TB says. HD has always had the ability to address the issues that TB and others have brought up against him, but he mostly ducked the issues and complain about "context" versus content.

I wonder, if HD is now going to support "outting" commenters, will he retract all of the criticism he leveled at Dave Keelan regarding the Mary Smith incident, in which she outted herself?

I wonder, will HD out all of the anonymous commenters who defend him and attack others on his behalf?

Let's hear from the man himself. We'll see.

Anonymous said...

Hayduke loves bog towers and big boxes . . .

Am I the only one who sees the metaphor?

Anonymous said...

"On balance (and in economist-speak), I'd say Target, Best Buy, Borders et al have produced net gains in our collective welfare.

Yep, gotta love them low prices.

And just look at all the ways our collective welfare has gained. They are great for local home values, are great places to work with great benefits, educate their employees, strive to have healthy employees, improve the environment, are great for domestic manufacturing and its higher paying jobs, great for local tax bases, and ensure their products are shipped cleanly and that workforces abroad have great job opportunities, too.

FreeMarket said...

Anon 4:11 did a beautiful job of demonstrating the economic fallacies that anti-Wal-Mart propagandists use to make us believe that Wal-Mart is the Devil. Take, for example, the claim that Wal-Mart hurts domestic manufacturing. What this really means is that Wal-Mart buys good from foreigners who can produce those goods at lower costs. What is inherently wrong with this? Nothing has hurt workers in domestic manufacturing more than technology. Look how few people are actually building the Tower- but each one of those folks is driving a highly advanced piece of construction equipment. Are we to hate technology in addition to Wal-Mart?

And Wal-Mart exploits foreign workers? Are those workers better off unemployed? Is Wal-Mart or anyone else forcing those workers to work in the factories? Get a clue.

Anonymous said...

FreeMarket, you're well able to make your points saliently without resorting to "get a clue" condescension.

"...Wal-Mart buys good from foreigners who can produce those goods at lower costs. What is inherently wrong with this?"

Well, let's look at some of the reasons goods can be produced for less cost in some places. The inherently wrong list could include shifting production and jobs to markets where there are:
- fewer safe workplace laws (resulting in unsafe workplaces),
- fewer environmental regulations (resulting in much more pollution, including more use of coal energy, its production also less regulated, putting mercury into the air which drops into the ocean which winds up in fish which winds up in those who eat fish),
- fewer product safety laws (for which we're repeatedly hearing cases of toys, toothpaste, toys, cosmetics, and more toys being recalled),
- fewer child labor laws,
- lax enforcement of minimum wage and overtime laws,
- and fewer civil rights (free speech suppressed, labor strikes and political dissent earn incarceration) to address and correct all of the preceding issues.

And there's also the problem with choosing to accept the additional pollution necessary to transport goods 10,000+ miles just to access cheaper labor/less regulated markets instead of greenly localizing manufacturing to consumer markets.

It's not right to accept an unsafe workplace just because the worker can choose not to work there. That kind of logic brought about things like the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire and the 1991 Hamlet Chicken Plant Fire. The burden is on the workplace to be safe, not sacrificing worker's safety in pursuit of lower prices. This very same moral imperative was resolved within the county this year when restaurant and bar workers finally had a safe, smoke-free workplace.

And it's erroneous to say you either have to have an unsafe workplace or the workers will be unemployed. Building safety into workplaces can actually reduce the cost of production through less lost-time accidents, healthier employees, lower insurance premiums, and more productive workforces not distracted or demotivated by workplace perils.

Technology only hurts workers in domestic manufacturing when employers choose not to reskill their employees as manufacturing methods improve. Some choose to, other's don't, perhaps seeing labor as just another expendable resource instead of their greatest resource worthy of investing in their improvement.

Safe, fair, and free trade between richer and poorer countries can and should be done far less detrimentally than we've seen it done in the past.

FreeMarket said...

Anon- what you have essentially said is that foreigners can produce goods cheaper because there is less foreign government regulation of those foreign markets. It sounds as if your problem is with foreign governments, not with Wal-Mart. I would argue that a free press and more personal liberties would go farther to curing the ills of workplace safety and protection of the environment than any government regulation ever could, foreign or domestic. Furthermore, the best thing for consumer protection is a brand name. The last thing the makers of Tylenol, for example, want to happen be that someone dies from taking their product.

“Technology only hurts workers in domestic manufacturing when employers choose not to reskill their employees as manufacturing methods improve.”

That is simply not true. Recently, Ken Ulman got the chance to drive a $250,000 combine to harvest corn. How many workers did that combine replace? Probably hundreds. Do we simply teach those hundreds of workers to drive a combine and, wa¬-la, they suddenly have jobs? Around the turn of the century, about 40% of Americans were employed on farms. Now, it is something like 3%. This is due to improvements in technology. You would think that kind of reduction of an employment of an entire industry would decimate our economy. However, this really freed folks up to invent computers, pharmaceuticals, and other modern wonders we take for granted. To defend domestic production from foreign competition is as foolish as defending it from technology.

Anonymous said...

I said "some of the reasons goods can be produced for less cost in some places", focusing on the wrong ways some countries do (and we have) to answer your question. Obviously, there's many reasons why goods can be produced less expensively in some places, including (but not limited to) costs of labor, materials, transportation, infrastructure, workforce abilities, and, yes, regulatory requirements, too. And, yes, I rightly see a problem with institutions, public or private, that either don't serve the parties for which they're intended or that permit one party to improperly externalize their costs onto others.

Protecting a brand name still boils down to a company doing what's right for its bottom line and that doesn't always equate to what's right and best for the general good. When protecting the public, it's far better to rely on institutions whose primary fiduciary interest is to protect the public to be there as a backstop helping all organizations protecting brand names to make the right choices. And these days, it just gets harder to determine where a product is made and the ownership of the product's brand name. Defending production against unfair competition is hardly foolish. It's keeping workplaces and the market safe.

Back on the farm -
Improvements since 1900 have included greater reliance on and more improved machinery, more irrigation, hybrid seeding, greater use of fertilizers and insecticides, all of which are more capital intensive than previous generations of farmers incurred. However, to attribute the reduction in manpower from 40% to 3% solely to technology is an oversimplification. Several stark periods of farm failures during the 20th century (due to economy and drought) resulted in farm consolidation, more than doubling the average farm size (to over 400 acres by the late '70's) which also contributed to use of such capital-intensive technology.

FreeMarket said...

“When protecting the public, it's far better to rely on institutions whose primary fiduciary interest is to protect the public to be there as a backstop helping all organizations protecting brand names to make the right choices.”

I disagree, and I point to the FDA
as an example of government regulation that is a detriment to public safety. For god’s sake, what can be more of an arrogant abuse of government power than to tell the sick what medications they can and cannot take? Believe it or not, the public is actually capable of making their own decisions without the government holding their hand.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm going to need a map back to the original topic of the post, itself somewhat off-topic from this month's goings on locally.

The FDA didn't come into existence by accident.

Regarding the FDA's oversight of drugs, testing and approvals are necessary to counter abuses, mistakes, and unknowns.

We can't both draw the line where every life that could be saved by accelerating availability to the public of new drugs and treatments and draw the line where every life is protected from making them available too soon and expect those to be the same lines. I wish we could. Unfortunately, the compromise made is to minimize the damage to the public as a whole which, on an individual level, may indeed be the worst outcome.

My guess is you'd rather see it left up to personal, ostensibly informed choice. But the general public can't, especially in dire situations, come anywhere close to knowing the risks, especially if testing regimens are trimmed or scrapped altogether.

If you're suggesting we just leave it up to the market what can be offered to people in dire situations, isn't it obvious what abuses await?

FreeMarket said...

I agree that this has gotten way off topic. I fundamentally disagree with you, but thanks for your point of view. Just curious, are you a vegetarian (since you posted a link to The Jungle)?

Anonymous said...

I have been, am not, and will be again.

Sentience, intelligence, benevolence, division of labor, cooperative effort, love, ability to fashion tools, complex language, ability to count, and many other traits previously erroneously thought to be uniquely human, being known in many other species, makes it very hard to rationalize consuming a fellow lucky soul able to appreciate the beauty of life.

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