Nonfiction — print. Beacon Press, 2006. 318 pgs. Library copy.
Subtitled “The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses”, Mitchell traces the growth of mega-retailers — from big boxes like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target, and Old Navy — and the precipitous decline of independent businesses. She goes on to explain the impact these companies and the big-box mentality on everything from increases in gasoline consumption to rising poverty rates, failing family farms, and decimated small towns.
I had picked originally picked up this book for background information on the structure of retail in small communities, particularly those who sell food. Most of the information I already knew — how big box stores move in and local stores collapse, how reliant we all are on the importance of cheap goods from China produced by cheap labor, how chains use odd numbers in their prices to give the appearance that they have driven prices down as low as possible.
What I did not know was how big box stores are constantly expanding in order to capture more categories (Wal-Mart, for example, went from selling clothing and household items to full-fledged groceries) and incentives people to spend their retail and food dollars in once place. The argument for building chains is that because they can purchase goods in bulk do to economies of scale, they can sell products at a cheaper price and thus save their customers money. Mitchell explains that this assumption is erroneous because big box stores will raise their prices after all the competition is gone.
Getting to this reasoning, though, is more difficult than I anticipated. Mitchell throws every possible explanation or outcome into a paragraph rather than teasing it out into distinct chapters. It makes her argument difficult to follow in places and I never felt like I got a full explanation for each outcome she discusses. I even had a difficult time explaining her reasoning to my mother due to the lack of flow in the argument.
Book lovers will appreciation the information on big-box booksellers. I had no idea places like Barnes & Noble and the now defunct Borders were paid to advertise certain books to customers as soon as they walk in the door. Some of the bestsellers of recent years could have become bestsellers due to prominent displays rather than word of mouth. The book is slightly outdated and includes little information about stores such as Amazon so I would be curious to learn how much things have changed in the last six years.
The Honors Project:
I read this book for the Honors Project, my own personal challenge to read more books about economics, food, and/or geography in preparation for writing my honors thesis. My goal for this project is to learn as much as I can about these topics so I can formulate better questions and, in turn, produce a better honors thesis. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.