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Corporate 99-cent stores

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Wednesday, Jun 17, 2009

As much as I like to cheerlead for hard discounters like Aldi, my love does not extend to the chain dollar stores, the predatory lenders of retail. These include Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, and Dollar General, which Daniel Gross recently profiled for Slate. Dollar General, as Gross explains, is doing well in the recession, but not necessarily because it offers cheap deals. Instead, they have found a better way to exploit the prejudices of their often captive small-town Southern populations.


Rather than simply pile up cheap bottles of detergents and ultracheap clothes—truth be told, only about 30 percent of the items it stocks retail for less than a buck—Dollar General began to think about how the firm could be more relevant to its customers. For example, even though most of Dollar General’s stores are in the South, which is hard-core Coca-Cola country, the stores had carried only Pepsi.


On my recent cross-country road trip, I found that these sorts of stores sold the same crappy quality of goods that Wal-Mart specializes in, only they charged more for them and had a less-overwhelming selection. Also, they were like traditional mom-and-pop dollar stores in that they were laid out somewhat chaotically, with no rhyme or reason to where you might find items you were looking for. Ice chests might be next to the off-brand shampoos. Of course, in theory I think that chaos is a good thing—it runs counter to the idea that shopping should be “fun” and hassle-free and contributes to putting shopping in what seems like its more proper place in our lives. It should not be an experience, entertainment in and of itself, but a chore. When shopping is convenient, this would seem to help dispense with that chore and expedite us to our other activities, but often convenience is geared toward getting us to spend more and enjoy ourselves in the store, exist in the fantasy prompted by owning goods rather than the activities that actually use them.


I’m entirely in favor of deglamorizing shopping, but the corporate chain dollar stores, while certainly unglamorous, don’t seem like the answer. Stores like Dollar General combine inefficiency with bad deals, banking on its reputation as a bargain outlet to disguise the fact that its prices aren’t actually all that low and taking advantage of the fact that they often stand as the only retailers in the interstices of rural America, the vast underpopulated swaths that are too scrawny for Wal-Mart to pick at.

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