6 Surprising Perspectives on Big Box Stores

Target, Walmart, Sam's Club, Macy's... Big box stores are as ubiquitous and American as Coca-Cola. In most towns, it's impossible to travel more than a few miles without encountering one. They're where many of us purchase our groceries, pick up hardware supplies, or grab other household necessities. 

And yet their impact on our cities has gone unquestioned for far too long. No, I'm not talking about their unsightly appearance. I'm talking about the financial implications of building stores like this and allowing them to take up acres of land in our communities.

Today we're sharing 6 key perspectives from Strong Towns friends and members that will help you understand the true impact of big box on your town:

Drive a little ways out from the center of any town and you’re likely to find several big box stores. If you took a helicopter or a drone above these parts of town, you’d see a vast amount of land taken up with just a handful of stores and their accompanying parking lots. The houses and small businesses around them would be dwarfed in comparison. Not only do they use up a ton of land, but as a result, big box stores also demand miles of public infrastructure like pipes and roads to serve them.

But here’s the crazy part: Those enormous stores are paying a negligible amount in taxes... Read the rest of this article.

All of today’s existing “suburbia” cannot and will not be “retrofitted” to a substantially different model of development. The basic reason is density: At the typical 1,000-3,000 people per square mile density of suburbia today, to upgrade to 20,000-30,000 people per square mile (which can be easily achieved, even with single-family detached housing, in the model of Japanese “suburbs”), would obviously imply a 10x increase in population. This may actually be the course of evolution for some cities, but likely not for most US suburbs.

Some small portion of suburbia – probably that portion nearest to some amenity like a beach or train station – can and should be upgraded to a substantially different pattern. Most of suburbia will be left as it is... Read the rest of this article.

In the years following the havoc of the financial crisis, a curious thing happened: Americans formed two rival groups that shared a common goal. Despite their ideological differences, both the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement wanted to end crony capitalism. In their own unique way, both camps criticized the bailouts, tax exemptions, and self-serving regulations that are draining the US economy. Yet both movements missed a far greater threat lurking right in their backyard: state and local development incentives... 

Development incentives, also known as investment subsidies, are programs that hand out subsidies in order to affect the location of investment. In human terms, this is the process of robbing Peter—a local small business owner—in order to convince Paul—typically a savvy representative of a multinational company—to invest in a particular community... Read the rest of this article.

Stacy Mitchell is the author of Big Box Swindle and a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, directing its initiatives on banking and independent business. In this interview, she discusses the origins of the big box store, the way big box stores are subsidized by communities and how they are undercutting the American middle class... Listen to the podcast interview.

The shopping mall is the epitome of America's Suburban Experiment. From a local government standpoint, it was the golden chalice of development, a winner-take-all prize in our race to the bottom. Whoever got the mall was able to steal from their neighbors that fraction of a sliver of retail taxes that local governments receive. When consolidated in one place, that could add up to a significant amount of money, at least for a while.

The losers with their crumbling downtowns.....well, they could eat cake. Until now. As kind of an indicator species in this great auto-oriented paradigm we've created, the shopping mall is in what one industry insider calls, "a death spiral"... Read the rest of this article.


We’re told that Black Friday is the “biggest shopping day of the year”— yet parking lots across the country tell a different story. I set out to explore #BlackFridayParking at commercial shopping centers across Tulsa, OK to see for myself.

It looked a lot like this... Read the rest of this article.