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I'm reading the book Big Box Swindle, and it is infuriating and depressing but vitally important. The author proves in exhaustive and maddening detail how mega-retailers like Target, Wal-Mart, etc., are destroying everything from small businesses to the environment to civic participation on all levels of society. Oh, and the destruction is all being underwritten by our tax dollars.

One of the many myths about the big boxes that Mitchell exposes is the idea that the big chains use economies of scale to keep their prices low -- that because they can buy anything in bulk, they can negotiate better deals with suppliers and pass those discounts on to consumers.

What really happens, Mitchell shows, is that the big chains have just been using their marketing power to make everyone think their prices are lower across the board. In fact, the chains draw people in with "loss leaders" (like a $29 DVD player or 20% off a bestselling book) or a few ridiculously priced items like a gallon jar of pickles for $1.99, but prices in the rest of the store are pretty much equivalent to what the local independently owned stores are charging. So in the end, and over time (as independent stores close and the chains face less and less competition), you're not saving any money by shopping at Target or Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble.

This particular passage really hit home for me, a former employee of B&N who saw their icky practices up close for two years:

One of the more striking examples of chains using discounts to build market share, only to raise prices later, occurred in the book industry. As Barnes & Noble and Borders multiplied across the country during the 1990s, the two chains offered substantial discounts on most books. Barnes & Noble discounted almost all hardcovers by 20 percent and half of its trade paperbacks by 10 percent. In 1999 -- at the end of a decade that saw nearly three thousand independent bookstores close and Barnes & Noble and Borders rise to dominate the industry -- the two chains quietly put an end to most of their discounts. Today they discount a select list of about twenty of their own 'bestsellers' -- these are self-selected, not New York Times bestsellers -- and a handful of other books. "It is one of the most successful marketing tricks that has ever been pulled on the American consumer," said Oren Teicher, chief operating officer of the American Booksellers Association. "Lots of consumers will tell you that every book sold at the chains is discounted. That hasn't been true for years."

I haven't stepped inside a B&N since I quit in 1995. Fortunately, I live in a city with fantastic independent bookstores like Unabridged and Women and Children First. I got lured into the convenience of Amazon for a while, but then I learned that if I order my books through Women and Children First's Booksense-powered search engine, I could have the books delivered to the store for pickup, thus saving myself any shipping charges. It ends up costing me the same or even slightly less to buy locally. Plus I get to support a valuable community resource in the process (Amazon doesn't host author readings or donate raffle prizes to nonprofits or have parties for kids, do they? No. They totally don't.)

Shop locally, everybody. The future of the free world depends on it. And check out Local First Chicago and read the Andersonville Study to see how supporting local businesses means more of your money stays in your community.

Replies: 3 Confessions

Oh yeah, this is one (of MANY) of the dirty secrets of the retail industry. You know the one about MalMart bankrupting Rubber Maid? ug. I'm SO glad I live in a WalMart free zone....and the Target stores here are owned locally (they just lease the brand from the US)

But if all else fails, you can go to your local library for books :)

the other amy @ 02/13/2007 05:37 AM CST

You live in a Wal-Mart-free zone...for now!

Amy C @ 02/13/2007 06:13 AM CST

walmart's looked, no likey australia, it won't work here we've got this sort of mini-big-box retail thing going but that's another story. hey, remember when wal-mart was all about 'made in america'? people still think that. that hasn't been true for years...

rob @ 02/27/2007 06:37 AM CST

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