Dollar Stores and Reinvention of Rural Retail
The oft-maligned discount depots are imperfect, but they're evolving to serve their market.
While doing research for an early TAC essay about abandoned buildings, I did a lot of Google Maps satellite viewing. One rural town in central New Jersey, not far from where I grew up, provided some fascinating aerial views. A tad south of the town of Washington, one can make out what appears to be an aborted attempt to build expensive New York and Philadelphia exurbs. The image shows an almost entirely vacant mid-90s strip plaza surrounded by fields dotted sparsely with McMansions. I find this remarkable because it clearly shows the land frozen in a transitional state. (Absent the 2008 financial crisis, which dealt a still-reverberating blow to the exurbs, the fields might well be gone today, and the plaza, which once sported a large, higher-end A&P supermarket, might be thriving.)
Only a few miles away from that plaza, I found another interesting transition in retail and lifestyle. A shuttered and long-vacant Ames—a slightly downmarket discount department store similar to K-Mart—was converted a few years ago into a Tractor Supply Co. Another old Ames location 30 minutes away, in another largely-vacant plaza, also became a Tractor Supply Co.
At first I took this as anecdotal evidence that lightly developed exurban areas were shrinking, and that rural land uses and lifestyles were actually growing at those edges. The swapping of Ames for Tractor Supply seemed to suggest that. That was the story I planned to write in 2017, but it isn’t quite correct, and the Tractor Supply angle turned out to be a dead end.
While there is some evidence that the exurbs are shrinking or declining—many of the most expensive and distant D.C.-area exurban homes, for example, stagnated for a long period after the 2008 recession—it isn’t that simple. Ames was in fact well-known for having locations in rural areas and long-established smaller towns; it was especially widespread in New England and the Northeast. I recall shopping at Ames when my family vacationed in lightly developed Vermont in the late 1990s. The retail blog Labelscar writes: “Ames was ubiquitous. Every decent-sized town in New England had an Ames.”
The story of Ames, which collapsed under debt and competitive pressure from Walmart in 2002, actually suggests the withdrawal of decent corporate retail and access to goods from rural areas—retail that was there long before the trappings of McMansion suburbia cropped up. Anyone who lived near an Ames, and not that near to much else, had access to a full-line discount department store, if not an especially glamorous one.
And for a long time following a raft of early-aughts retail mergers, bankruptcies, and sector concentrations, much of rural America lost this kind of brick-and-mortar variety and convenience.
The narrative around rural and small-town retail tends to focus on 50-mile round trips to distant Walmarts, empty shells of stores that sucked the life out of the local retail ecosystem and then packed up, and junky, exploitative dollar stores.
There’s any number of articles criticizing dollar stores, either for what they’re alleged to represent—the hollowing out of local vitality—or for specific, and in some cases quite serious, instances of corporate malfeasance. They impoverish communities by outcompeting higher-quality alternatives, particularly in heavily black communities. They attract crime, in part because they intentionally go cheap on store security, camera quality, and things like wide aisles and uncluttered windows. They sell more food than Whole Foods, but offer mostly junk. They’re not a neat response to poverty or decline, but exist in a reinforcing feedback loop with it.
All of this may have been true at some point, and much of it remains true. But I had something of an epiphany when I took a long road trip down U.S. Route 11 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Just south of the small town of Buchanan, I was idling in a strip mall parking lot waiting for some Chinese take-out. I wandered into the dollar store anchoring the little plaza, which had a name I hadn’t quite seen before: Dollar General Market. This was a regular Dollar General with a miniaturized supermarket attached. Fresh meat, veggies, and a much fuller line of canned and frozen goods than the perfunctory shelves and freezer in an ordinary location.
It turns out the Market concept was launched all the way back in 2003, but from 2007 to 2010 it did not add any new locations. There’s not much information about it, and Dollar General does not list a number of locations. Clearly, however, they haven’t given up on the concept, despite it being unfamiliar territory for the chain.
If you’re not finding this fascinating, I’ll spell it out: The Dollar General Market is a tiny version of the “supercenter.” The combination of discount retail with grocery has its origins in the 1950s and ’60s, when a number of now-defunct retailers experimented with it. (Chains like Korvette’s, Two Guys, and Great Eastern Mills included supermarkets in at least some locations; some of these embryonic supercenters were nearly 200,000 square feet). However, it turned out that grocery and discount retail were very different industries, and it was not until the 1980s that Walmart cracked the code, and the supercenter went mainstream.
But even the ordinary dollar store is not exactly a “dollar store” anymore. As junky as their food may be, they do sell food. Many stock at least some brand-name merchandise. And in most of them, very little of the stuff is literally $1.
The evolution of the dollar store—from selling generic general merchandise for a dollar, to selling somewhat more expensive and higher-quality general merchandise, to morphing into miniaturized full-line stores, and finally to dabbling in fresh grocery—almost perfectly recapitulates the midcentury evolution of the discount department store category. Walmart, K-Mart, and Woolworth’s, for example, all began as small variety stores in the first half of the 20th century. The dollar store concept is undergoing a sort of convergent evolution, paralleling the last century’s development of a slightly different retail concept.
In other words, it is almost as if a large chunk of the country has backslidden into the turn of the last century and is experiencing the retail evolutions of the 1900s all over again. Dollar stores might not turn out to be a phenomenon of post-industrial decline and rural despair, but rather a reincarnation of the first dime stores and variety stores, out of which the discount department store and supercenter eventually evolved.
All of this is to say that over the last 20 years, dollar stores may have been finding their way, and that in some ways the withdrawal of rural retail may have been a transitional state. Today’s dollar store isn’t quite Ames, let alone the Sears of old, which extended a middle-class lifestyle to the remotest parts of the country. But it isn’t yesterday’s dollar store either. That isn’t often recognized, and it’s a good start.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.