Why I don't like big chain retail stores

It has been my experience (she says, noting that she sounds less like an intolerant prat when she says something like that) that whenever a big box chain store opens up, all the independent stores suffer. They suffer to the point where they close down.

Now, capitalists say this is a good thing. They say “Rah! Rah! Free Enterprise!” They say, “If Mom and Pop can’t survive in the world of business, they should get out.” They say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

But that’s not entirely accurate. Free Enterprise, first of all, assumes that everyone kind of gets the same *chance* to survive. Independent stores don’t have huge budgets to throw at advertising; they don’t have huge budgets to throw at ginormous stores in overpriced real estate markets. They don’t have the kind of liquidity from “head office” to hire real estate speculators and interior designers with MBAs in “where to put stuff”, and they don’t have liquidity from head office to buy more stock than they know what to do with, or will ever be able to move.

I don’t think there is anywhere in the world that has a true “Free Enterprise” system. Somewhere big business doesn’t get corporate tax breaks, civic property tax incentives, government buy-outs, etc., etc., etc..

Independents are important, because they provide choice for the market. And what happens when a big box retail store moves in, is that all the “Mom and Pops” end up closing their doors, which means that now, you only have the choice of products offered at the big box retail stores. So if you’re looking for locally-grown produce, you’re SOL. If you’re looking for a book published by a local press, or (often) written by a local person, you’re SOL. If you really want to buy bath products made without chemically scents with all natural ingredients, you’re SOL. You have to go to the Big Green Store (and most of the stuff in that store is probably not grown or produced in Canada, so you’re sending your hard-earned money to Taiwan and Florida and California) or the horrid bookstore where they put Robert Kroestch’s The Studhorse Man in the SCIENCE FICTION SECTION, or you’re going to the brand-name warehouse store or kitchen/bath focus store and you’re looking at hand lotion called “Vanilla Scent” that smells like rancid motor oil.

Losing independents means local producers have nowhere to distribute, sell, and market their own products. It means consumers don’t even have the *choice* to support their local producers and industries. It means that the people who suffer most are the people who live in the same area/town/region.

Something else you don’t hear about often (but should) is that local independents tend to support local charities, teams, nonprofits, events, and organisations far, FAR more than the big box chains. When was the last time you saw the Superstore™ minor hockey tournament, or the Indigo™ book festival? I can tell you from experience that independents *do* support these things. With more dollars that they can’t afford than big box retail.

Independents aren’t about the bottom line, usually. Usually the folks involved in independent retail are folks who actually kind of care about what they’re doing. At least, that’s incredibly true for bookstores and hardware stores and organic/local produce stores.

One more thing. Independents also shell out a hell of a lot more money in advertising dollars to local print (newspapers and magazines), radio, and television stations, and even to local web advertising companies. They contribute more to the local economy, they tend to have less staff turnover (which is a good thing in the long run), they support local producers (part of supporting the local economy, I guess), they tend to have better quality merchandise, and in many cases, a much better selection. Better customer service, and folks more dedicated to their business.


Shop locally. Shop independents. Spend your money where it’s going to have the most impact on your own local economy.

cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.


  1. I do the best I can; I buy music from the independent music store on Whyte, my books from Greenwoods and Audrey’s whereever possible, my shoes from the smaller chains and local stores, I go to the farmer’s market as often as I can to get vegetables and other groceries, etc., etc. Sometimes those places don’t have what I need or want, and I’m forced to go elsewhere. And I am happier for it. I realized a few years ago that the misery it causes me even to enter a Walmart or a Superstore was enough reason to pay more elsewhere. I can afford that much money for my personal time (because the other thing about shopping at the big box stores is how much LONGER it takes to do anything) and well-being.Now if only someone would come up with an independent dvd/electronics store around here to save me the hell of best buy or futureshop, my shopping needs would be satisfied.

  2. See, and the other problem about big box retail is that when they push out the independents, they’re pushing out the independents who *used* to be in every neighbourhood, the grocery stores you could get to by walking or within easy driving distance. The corner bookstore and the local tailor. The big box retail stores *always* open up at least one location on the outskirts of town. And that leads to what His Nibs say they call “The Doughnut Effect”, which I thought sounded pretty wonderful, until I realised it had very, very little to do with doughnuts and rather a lot to do with people losing their livelihood and the local economy taking a hit.

  3. Argh…now to re-type my comment, again. Stupid blogger!I agree cenobyte. Growing up in a small community where your family owns a small grocery store, you really learn the value of supporting your community.My father would often comment on the ‘stupidity’ of individuals in the community who would feel the need to drive 90km into the ‘Big City’ to get cheaper groceries. ‘But it is cheaper at “The Devil” (aka Walmart) or Stupidstore.’ they would often say. Sometimes people just don’t think…the logical behind that just doesn’t make economical sense, yet they thought so.I don’t particularly like the big box stores either, but I must confess, I do shop there on occasion. We do have a number of independents in Edmonton, as Cori commented, and Mr. J and I try to frequent them as much as possible (we just like them better). However, it’s hard, especially when we are trying to balance our ‘good habits’. Mr. J and I take the bus everyday to work to cut down on the amount we drive our vehicle. And frankly, the independents are quite aways for us to drive. So it’s not so much about the price, as it is about the amount of gases we are expelling into the atmosphere. We do our best.I agree that the big box entities DO squeeze out the little guys, however I found that more in the smaller regions that I do here. A smaller center just doesn’t have the same economic base that a larger center, like Edmonton, does, and therefore is better able to support the smaller independents. I am extremely thankful of that.As for the MBA crack, I am sure that wasn’t a slight against anyone who may have such a degree. They definitely like to advise business on how to best position their products, but that’s not the only great thing they do….we do…..stuff!!! :)

  4. Cori, I would very strongly recommend NCIX in place of Bestbuy clones, if you don’t mind shopping online. As NCIX is made of winning.

  5. (wait, I meant I was happier for going to those other places most of the time, not happier for having to go to the crap stores. This is what happens when sleep deprivation reaches eXtReMe heights, my paragraph unity skills go to crap)

  6. My MBA IS a useful degree, as is my B. Comm, as is all of my other life and work experiences. Not everyone works in the field related to their degree. Perhaps the MBA’er/Interior Designer was using their skills and knowledge as an interior designer in the said job you were speaking off.I guess I just get a little twitchy when such comments are made. In fact, my MBA was more about educational value, enrichment and personal development than using it as a tool to get me ahead in my career. Enough of that rant.To comment on the self-service checkouts…I actually prefer those to interacting with the untrained, uncaring service people we currently have working in many of the retail outlets today.I can often be frustrated simply by the fact that I have to frequent the Big Box place, and then have to interact with individuals who don’t know anything about the product I am seeking or wanting information about. Argh!!

  7. “rancid motor oil” — snicker. Good one.One of the world’s most brilliant writers in Doug Sanders in the Globe & Mail, and he wrote this piece last year, about how he turned 40 and Canada turned 140 in the same year, so he was born in Centennial Year. He did a bunch of research and wrote as if he’d time-travelled back to 1967 and was walking down the street telling us what he was seeing. It was a brilliant piece because who of us actually remembers what things were like in 1967 — even those of us who were already born then? And one of the things he commented on was that just about all the stuff that was for sale in the stores — furniture, clothes, etc. — was MADE IN CANADA. There were tariff walls in place that made anything from Sweden or Japan really expensive, so Canadian manufacturing companies abounded and sold their stuff to their own countrymen (and wymin). But the point is IT WAS ALL REALLY EXPENSIVE. Economies of scale, etc., etc. You couldn’t buy a writing desk for less than $800; there was no IKEA. On and on.The world of goods has so very much changed. They’re cheap, they’re from far away, and they’re sold in big box stores. And most people wouldn’t have it any other way. Their dollar, which isn’t as different from a 1960s dollar as it should be, just stretches soooo much farther at Malwart. Waddaya gonna tell those folks? That their kids should only get one toy for Christmas, and not an electronic toy at that, because it’s so much better for the local economy? Say what? If they can see it on TV, they want it in their hot little acquisitory hands. And if Mom and Pop have to work as Malwart greeters rather than keep the local emporium in the family for another couple of generations, well, we never did even know Mom and Pop by the first names anyway.

  8. The real tragedy is when you want service that goes beyond the standard box store “find the thing on the shelf and get out” mentality. If I want a specific cut of beef, I can go to a local butcher and have them custom cut it for me… but try finding someone to trim a roast for you at StupidStore. If you want shoes, the big box stores will have them, but what if you want to get a shoe REPAIRED? Small mom-and-pop cobblers will do that for you. Got a question about a particular product? Fat chance of anyone working at Walmart knowing anything about it (or Futureshop, for that matter). Small local electronic stores are more likely to have knowledgeable staff.I happen to live near downtown Edmonton, so it’s actually much much LESS convenient for me to shop at the box stores… the nearest Walmarts and such are all far far away in the suburbs. But even if I lived near them, I’d rather shop where the SERVICE doesn’t suck. Have you been watching the “self checkout” trend growing lately? Soon, you won’t have to interact with another human being at all! Screw that… if you want convenience and cheap products and don’t care about service, just order the damn things online.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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