the Dollar Store Debate.

OK, I will wade into it.
This was touched off by a minor local Twitterstorm last week, when some lamented the opening of yet another “Dollar Store” in New Westminster. Some had the temerity to suggest that miscellaneous discount crap fresh off the container from East Asia was not a product category of which New Westminster was suffering paucity.

Ever-opinionated, usually correct, and fiercely local Twitterista Jen Arbo was quoted in the Record lamenting that this was the best our local retail environment could offer. The counter argument being, I guess, all hail the free market and the entrepreneurs for which it stands. I have to count myself on the Arbo side of the discussion, but had little to say on the issue. I don’t go into Dollar Stores, because they have nothing to offer me, although they apparently offer something to others: go, go, free market!

Then I noticed the Record article quoted a New York Times article thusly:

“We are awakening to a dollar-store economy,”

…and I shuddered. I cannot think of a more damning lament for our economy, or for our society. No I gotta comment.

This “Dollar Store Economy” is one where the retail environment is dominated by bountiful cheap choice. If you cannot find the quality or the features you want, that is offset by the remarkable affordability of what you don’t want. As the times article points out, it is the “Luxury of Quantity”. Tired of crappy stuff? Here is some more crappy stuff. This is the foundation of the economy that makes Wal-Mart the largest retail business in the world, and IKEA the largest seller of home furnishings in the world. This is the philosophy that brings us 5000-square-foot plywood McMansions in neighbourhoods without sidewalks, straining the City’s ability to provide basic services, while the homeowner laments outragrous 2.5% property tax increases. This is the philosophy that makes it profitable to burn the crap we import and pay a dollar each for more when we find a more pleasing colour the next day.

This also creates the market condition where it is difficult to shop in New Westminster if you want to shop locally and support the local economy. Outside of Wal-Mart, there is no place to buy sporting goods in New Westminster. We have two very good bike shops, but not one place to get a decent selection of running shoes. We host the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame and one of the greatest Lacrosse teams in the history of the sport, but you cannot buy a lacrosse stick within our 15 square kilometres. The same lament for people trying to buy office supplies, gardening equipment… the list goes on.

The big-box merchants at our periphery provide a dizzying supply of low-quality replacements for all of the above. Think about it: one sure way to tell you are not an aficionado of something, but are merely a dabbler, is when you find yourself buying supplies for that thing at Canadian Tire. People who race bicycles (or even commute seriously on them) don’t buy tires at Crappy Tire; barbecue experts are not going into Home Depot to peruse the latest offerings from Broil-King; professional Graphic Designers are not picking up art supplies at WalMart. All for the same reason: these businesses sell crap for the masses who don’t know better (which also explains why I buy car parts at Canadian Tire, I guess).

Which brings me to my favourite example of the unseen cost of cheap goods. Look at the coffee table in this picture:

It looks pretty non-descript, if boring. We bought it about 10 years ago from an Amish guy when we were living near Amish Country in the Mid-West, so it is hand-made of real locally-sourced hardwood. Real joinery, too, the thing is built like a tank. Barring housefire or natural disaster, this is probably the last coffee table I will ever own. But the wood was local, made by a local artisan, and we bought it right from him: cost us about $150. I seriously think this is the last coffee table I will ever buy in my life. In that sense, it is similar to the $80 solid wood cutting board I bought from Louie at the Royal City Farmers Market. Well built, local, durable.

Now there is another way we could have gone. Drive down to IKEA, and see what they have to offer. They have a very similar coffee table, for about a third of the price; what a bargain. It is, of course, made from a compelling blend of particle board, fibreboard and plastic, wrapped in a provocative envelope of Melamine foil and acrylic paint. It is packed 3 inches flat in cardboard, with Styrofoam and plastic film, and comes with a little 4mm hexwrench to put it together.

But how long do we anticipate before the $50 coffee table starts to look tattered around the veneer edges? How long until those 4mm hexwrench fasteners start to wiggle loose in their particle board sockets, of the fiberboard shelf starts to sag? How long before this coffee table is headed for the landfill and another trip to the IKEA is required? 3 Years? 5 years? Then try to imagine how much of that $50 stayed in the local economy? The guy who sold it to you spent 3 minutes punching in the purchase, and gets paid $10 an hour. Your proportion of the money spent by IKEA that day in Coquitlam might total 10% of that purchase, and some of that will be eaten up by the landfill costs of the packaging…
That is the promise of the “Dollar Store Economy”: more cheap shit, sold by the lowest bidder, brought to you by mass production overseas, with no local content, and little contribution to the local economy, except what we can squeeze out in the form of taxes (with the resultant whining about how taxes are hurting “competitiveness” of business).

So thanks Jen Arbo, for running a local businesses that helps other local businesses succeed, and for all your work at the Royal City Farmers Market, bringing local goods directly to local consumers. You might not have thought about it this way, but you have been fighting against the forces of the “Dollar Store Economy” before you ever piped up in the Record.

2 comments on “the Dollar Store Debate.

  1. I know the feeling. I might start with a neighbourhood pub on 20th. Then an office supply place downtown. And a sports store over in Royal Square…

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