Dollars and Trees: Class and Retail in the 'Wood

From Marc’s to Drugmart, Family Dollar to Dollar Tree, budget class shopping accounts for the largest share of mid-sized national retail in the ‘Wood. As one laissez faire indicator of underlying economic conditions, the proliferation of these outlets within the ‘Wood speaks to our natural market state.

While anxiety may be high among those yearning for more upscale shopping experiences in the ‘Wood, the arrival of Dollar Tree at the “West End” on Sloane may be interpreted as a sign of hope. Lakewood, the value capital of the United States, is now home to a 21st Century five and dime. Perhaps, just in time.

Lacking TIFs, tax abatement or the threat of eminent domain, the natural state of our city attracts these establishments on the basis of current demography. This is a sign of the times. The issue at hand is whether we can act with prudence and honesty as we prepare for the shaky economic times ahead.

With demand on hand, value laden retail options should factor into any intelligible city-wide plan for economic development. As a city of affordable homes, strong schools, public libraries and other community institutions, we must take into account the increasing pressures of globalization and determine how such heat will directly effect these institutions, and the families and homeowners who support them. As the outsourcing of America’s good jobs and quality of life continues unabated, so too do the pressures necessitating value-oriented institutions, both public and private, which continue to build within the ‘Wood.

Although the Tree is a publicly traded importer of Chinese goods, the outlet does provide some relief from the Walmartization process by offering staple household consumables at a price point at which even Walmart and Kmart cannot compete. For those concerned about the threat posed by the big box retailers, Dollar Tree operates on the offensive, attempting to steal market share from Walmart by delivering staple household goods at the one dollar, fixed price point. By focusing on necessity items along-side party supplies and seasonal goods, Dollar Tree makes a pre-emptive strike against Walmart.

Dollar Tree’s strategy amounts to a ‘lesser of two evils.’ Their presence may act to deter Walmart from attempting to locate in the ‘Wood. It’s the plethora of discretionary goods found only in the shops of local merchants, if at all, that would most seriously be threatened with Walmart’s arrival. Yet, there may be local casualties at the hand of penny wise shoppers in the ‘Wood who choose Dollar Tree over Party Center and other local outlets offering similar goods? Only time will tell effects of the Dollar Tree on the Party Center and other stores offering greeting cards and similar seasonal items.

Here, we stumble upon the essential catch 22 for many working families. As economic pressures build from wage stagnation to the rising cost of natural resources, many Americans are forced into consumption patterns not necessarily ideal, nor ethically consistent with their critique of our nation’s rush to the bottom. Perhaps as the Dollar Tree grows, the Party Center sinks.

The contradictions of economic need and ethical purchase can be resolved through more collective, localized forms of creating, growing and trading the things we must consume. Corporate value propositions may not be the ideal strategy for dealing with the hunger pains of globalization, at least for some ‘Woodies. Cooperatives may to offer the greatest return to the community as a whole. Cooperatives can provide greater returns economically and advance accumulations of social capital. Such a return is not to be found in the experience of individualized consumption through corporate channels.

The Lakewood Observer Gourmet Food Security Network was one such experiment in collective resource pooling, with the triune purpose of: group buying, building critical mass for future ventures and buying locally produced goods. However, the social overhead involved in cooperative ventures may turn many people off. That is, as long as the corporate consumer experience is still a feasible option. Of course, a market flooded with internationally produced consumer goods and produce is inextricably linked to the cost and availability of our dwindling fossil fuel resources.

Despite the contradictions over consumer values and ethical practices, the Dollar Tree has become a community store. According to Jennifer Short, neighborhood resident, mother and Dollar Tree shopper, “This is a neighborhood store.”

Short knows that a trip to the ‘Tree will be met with friendly, familiar faces from the ‘Wood. Many of her neighbors shop there, as well as several community groups, from schools to churches that are engaging in group buying. Short’s only regret is that she “misses the Medic Santa”, who brought holiday joy to her family for many years. Rumor has it that Lakewood Observer publisher Jim O’Bryan may volunteer for that job sometime in the near future - the Emerald Canyon Santa Claus.

Dollar Tree employee Jonnah Beideman echoes Short’s sentiments. “I’ve worked at the Rocky River and Kamm’s (stores), and this is my favorite one… The customers are great!”

Beideman points to the friendly attitude of shoppers in the Wood compared to a more condescending tone he encountered in Rocky River and a less lively atmosphere at Kamm’s. In fact, the Lakewood location is so alive, Dollar Tree is running out of room and may be looking to relocate or expand.

Current code in Lakewood prevents Dollar Tree from maximizing their space. According to Beideman, the Lakewood store must keep food no less than 3 inches off the floor. In Rocky River, where policies aren’t so sophisticated, Dollar Tree shoppers can literally eat off the floor! So much for upscale!
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Volume 3, Issue 1, Posted 11:11 PM, 12.31.06