It has brought me great joy to have been boycotting malls for the past 13 years. My not-so-joyful experiences have been recorded previously under “published articles” if you are interested in reading a couple of horror stories [“The Abomination…” and “Mall Confession”]. With the phased opening of “Highstreet Mall” on the west end of Abbotsford I now have another mall to boycott! I heard it was the largest mall to open in BC since Metrotown. The “super” Walmart in the mall opened about a month ago which means we now have three of those super abominations within half an hour of each other [Mission, Chilliwack, and Abbotsford], and all opened within the past few years. And a new competitor, Target, is set to open later this year. I agree with the following post by my friend, Jack Heppner, who writes about a similar phenomenon in his community.

When Boxes Implode

More and more people work and shop in big boxes on the edge of small towns and cities across the world. Where I live in Steinbach, most everything you want to buy is found on the fringes of our city in big boxes. A few weeks ago another big box, Walmart, joined this huddle of boxes in our north end. To add insult to injury, this past week the one grocery store we had downtown closed its doors creating a food desert in the center of our city for the first time in its history.

Nevertheless, some people are delighted. They are of the opinion that the growing presence of big box stores on the edge of our community will boost economic growth and activity in general. WalMart, they say, will bring better bargains and more people to town. And once in town, people will also support other local businesses. Everyone in the region will become a winner.

In an article entitled, After Ruining America, the Era of Giant Chain Stores Is Over, James Howard Kunstler, says why he thinks the big box era is on its last leg. He asserts that the boxes will implode on themselves and usher in an era in which it will be possible and imperative to rebuild local economies. So what is the basis on which he makes such an assertion?

For one, unlimited growth is unsustainable. At present, WalMart is opening one new store every second business day. But what happens when you continue to open new stores once the market in a given region has been saturated? After all, there is a limited amount of stuff you can sell to a limited number of people. It is interesting to note, that while WalMart opens more than 100 new stores a year, it now owns about 400 empty stores  around the world – the main reason being over-saturation of the market. Sooner or later the golden goose stops laying golden eggs.

Another reason is that big box store-wars are heating up. Ikea and Target stores, for example, are springing up around the country; stores willing to go head-to-head with the likes of WalMart and Canadian Tire. Consumers can expect even better bargains as a result, creating even greater pressure on smaller stores in town. And this will accelerate small business closures and bring more onerous working conditions for those working in the big boxes.

But, while it is not immediately apparent on the surface, there is a limit to how cheaply you can sell your products. It is a truism, acknowledged by most rational people, that the true value of products must of necessity always be paid by someone. If it is not the consumer, then that cost gets shifted elsewhere: to individuals working for less than a living wage, to communities that get ripped apart, to an eroding middle class, to off-shore sweatshops, to a deteriorating environment – and the list goes on. As big boxes become more pressurized places these true costs will become more apparent and fewer people will be prepared to support them in spite of rock-bottom prices.

Once big boxes have succeeded in decimating small businesses in our communities, one of the few places people will be able to find employment is inside the big boxes themselves, except for those fortunate communities that have other major industries. And it is no surprise to most of us that employees in many of the big boxes like Walmart get only part-time work with minimal pay and few, if any, benefits. As this number continues to grow, more and more people simply will not be able to afford to buy more and more stuff even at bargain prices. As a result, sale volumes will decline, putting the big boxes in danger of imploding. Kunstler makes this point perhaps more  forcefully than necessary when he says that, “The WalMart shoppers are exactly the demographic that is getting squashed in the contraction of this phony-baloney corporate buccaneer parasite revolving credit crony capital economy…America made itself hostage to bargain shopping and then committed suicide.”

With our inter-connected global economy in deep trouble, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the big boxes to keep churning out huge profits for their shareholders. Add to that the ever increasing price of petroleum products needed to keep gigantic “warehouses on wheels” in motion. Without this distribution method in place, the whole deck of cards comes crashing down. And when it does, there will likely be few or no new chain stores to replace the dying ones.

Evidence of what I have described above is already present for those willing to pay attention. But soon it will become clear to all that we are on the brink of a gigantic big box implosion. Before long we will all come to understand that to continue bowing down to the big box shrines on the edge of town simply will not be sustainable. Something new will need to arise to fill the void that their impending implosions will leave behind.

And this is where the news gets brighter. Kunstler suggests that it will be necessary to re-develop local economies in the vacuum left by the imploding big boxes. So our children and grandchildren will, in fact, have an opportunity to participate in recreating what the big boxes have destroyed. It will become increasingly feasible to begin small businesses in the heart of our communities, especially ones that  draw upon local sources for the products they sell. And, of course, these businesses will focus on quality service, not just rock-bottom prices.

And then, all across the land, our children and grandchildren will have the opportunity to repair the social fabric that has been ripped apart in our communities by the big boxes. That will be a huge and difficult task, especially during the transition period. It will require vision, determination and hope, but perhaps it will also be tinged with joy.

May the implosions begin!

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