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Wal-Mart giant can be tamed

Wal-Mart faces serious competition from a fast-growing innovator. In a David versus Goliath contest, the small Dollar General stores sprouting across the Midwest and South herald a new approach to retailing.

A Wal-Mart Supercenter is about a quarter-mile long measured diagonally, and the immense discount stores offer an astounding array of merchandise and boast of their low everyday prices. Merging the traditional Wal-Mart with a full-size grocery store and a gasoline station creates a magnet for one-stop shoppers. But south-of-Boston planning and zoning boards struggle with the scale of the buildings, parking lots, and approaches.

The Plymouth Wal-Mart Supercenter will dwarf the traditional Wal-Mart in Abington, which is a very large retail operation. And vastness has its disadvantages.

Wal-Mart and other large chains have long argued that industrious local businessmen can exploit their weaknesses. Curry Hardware prospers next to a Quincy Home Depot in part because it fills propane tanks and provides special paints that its mega neighbor does not. But Curry Hardware prospers too because it is a fast place to shop. Large-scale stores consume time in major if chaotic ways.

A carpenter, plumber, or homeowner in a hurry for an item, even one of the so-called bread-and-butter items that attract many customers into Home Depot, can often buy the item more quickly at Curry Hardware. For hurried shoppers, any minor price differential proves inconsequential. Parking in a huge parking lot, walking across the lot and through a sprawling store, then standing in line to pay consumes time in ways mega-store executives understand. Home Depot and other large stores are experimenting with customer-operated checkout, but few innovations help enough to offset the time consumed by vastness.

Women shoppers understood this by 1980. Throughout the 1970s, more women worked outside the home than ever before, and shopping malls worried about decreasing leisure time. Malls offered shoppers a wide choice of merchandise and prices, and smart consumers comparison shopped, often not only saving money on a product that precisely pleased them, but finding products they never knew existed. For many women, especially younger ones, the leisurely afternoon at the mall became a Saturday-only luxury by 1980. State legislators allowed stores to open on Sundays to allow more time for shopping.

After 1980, the south-of-Boston landscape changed dramatically as time-saving retailing triumphed. Convenience stores blossomed, but so did gas-station quick markets. Women managing careers and families bought gas and milk at one place, and mega-store executives paid close attention. A Wal-Mart Supercenter is really a massive gas station-convenience store, and while its spectrum of products and low prices attract, its scale may equally well repel a shopper in a hurry for one product.

And that's why Dollar General stores triumph. The chain operates 6,514 stores in a region stretching from New York to Nebraska and south to Florida. Focusing on food, especially snacks, health and beauty aids, and cleaning supplies, the chain is positively booming. In 2002, it opened 600 stores, all rather small and all precisely situated.

Dollar General stores populate strip-center buildings that face major intersections and highways. The firm prefers strip malls in which drug stores and video stores already do quick-stop business. Dollar General stores average about 7,500 square feet, with 50- to 100-foot fronts, and each requires at least 35 parking spaces. In its 27-state region the chain has perfected an easy-access, easy-egress philosophy, since it caters to shoppers in a hurry.

Moreover, the chain aims for spots away from Wal-Mart and other mega stores, in small and medium markets of 25,000 or fewer people. While it sites some stores in market areas with between 25,000 and 75,000 population, it is not a city store. It prefers locations that serve people who must drive 20 minutes or more to the nearest Wal-Mart.

It locates chiefly in lower-income communities, particularly those with median household incomes below $35,000. In such communities, many people think twice about the cost of gasoline when considering a run to any distant store. More importantly, lower-income families often work long hours, and prize time spent with children at home. The Dollar General chain fine-tunes its product selection to such households, but close proximity and quick shopping become products, too.

The chain started 60 years ago in Scottsville, Ky., by J.L. Turner, a dry goods merchant with a third-grade education, is now a Fortune 500 company with annual sales of $6.1 billion. From the same upland-south region that has produced Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, and other massive companies originated a store that has not yet penetrated the New England region but is on its way.

Area merchants who fume about Wal-Mart might better worry about Dollar General, since the chain competes with the small food and housewares stores that thrive on convenience. But planning boards and ordinary citizens might wonder more about the impact of Dollar General on gas-station food marts and the smaller grocery-focused convenience chain stores that dot the region. Just as Wal-Mart precipitated major change, driving out Caldor, Ames, and other discount chain department stores, Dollar General promises to be equally powerful. Any New Englander who pauses outside an Oklahoma or Alabama Dollar General store wonders at the steady flow of fast-moving shoppers in too much haste for Wal-Mart. Any business as successful as Dollar General is bound to arrive soon in the fast-paced south-of-Boston region.

Norwell resident John Stilgoe is Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University.

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