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Scale Implosion - The End of Big Box Stores?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Organic Transitions page and our Big Box Retailers page.

Back in the day when big box retail started to explode upon the American landscape like a raging economic scrofula, I attended many a town planning board meeting where the pro and con factions faced off over the permitting hurdle. The meetings were often raucous and wrathful and almost all the time the pro forces won -- for the excellent reason that they were funded and organized by the chain stores themselves (in an early demonstration of the new axioms that money-is-speech and corporations are people, too!).  

The chain stores won not only because they flung money around -- sometimes directly into the wallets of public officials -- but because a sizeable chunk of every local population longed for the dazzling new mode of commerce. "We Want Bargain Shopping" was their rallying cry. The unintended consequence of their victories through the 1970s and beyond was the total destruction of local economic networks, that is, Main Streets and downtowns, in effect destroying many of their own livelihoods. Wasn't that a bargain, though?   Despite the obvious damage now visible in the entropic desolation of every American home town, WalMart managed to install itself in the pantheon of American Dream icons, along with apple pie, motherhood, and Coca Cola. In most of the country there is no other place to buy goods (and no other place to get a paycheck, scant and demeaning as it may be). America made itself hostage to bargain shopping and then committed suicide. Here we find another axiom of human affairs at work: people get what they deserve, not what they expect. Life is tragic.

The older generations responsible for all that may be done for, but the momentum has now turned in the opposite direction. Though the public hasn't groked it yet, WalMart and its kindred malignant organisms have entered their own yeast-overgrowth death spiral. In a now permanently contracting economy the big box model fails spectacularly. Every element of economic reality is now poised to squash them. Diesel fuel prices are heading well north of $4 again. If they push toward $5 this year you can say goodbye to the "warehouse on wheels" distribution method. (The truckers, who are mostly independent contractors, can say hello to the re-po men come to take possession of their mortgaged rigs.) Global currency wars (competitive devaluations) are about to destroy trade relationships. Say goodbye to the 12,000 mile supply chain from Guangzhou to Hackensack. Say goodbye to the growth financing model in which it becomes necessary to open dozens of new stores every year to keep the credit revolving.

  Then there is the matter of the American customers themselves. The WalMart shoppers are exactly the demographic that is getting squashed in the contraction of this phony-baloney corporate buccaneer parasite revolving credit crony capital economy. Unlike the Federal Reserve, WalMart shoppers can't print their own money, and they can't bundle their MasterCard and Visa debts into CDOs to be fobbed off on Scandinavian pension funds for quick profits. They have only one real choice: buy less stuff, especially the stuff of leisure, comfort, and convenience.


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