Heading back home from a day trip to Boston, I was smug in our easy westbound ride.
Traffic was heavy in the opposite lanes on the Mass Pike that Sunday evening, so I was glad we weren’t in the crawl. As I watched the cars and trucks slow, though, I began to notice something: lots of tractor-trailers emblazoned with the Family Dollar name.
In fact, over the course of about 70 minutes, until we reached the New York border, I counted 11 eastbound Family Dollar trailers, two of them tandems. It was a visual reminder of the retailer’s growing network of stores.
North Carolina-based Family Dollar Stores Inc. and competitor Dollar General Corp. of Tennessee have been on a tear of late.
The companies offer general merchandise — including food and apparel — for prices ranging from $1 to $10. And when consumers were pinched by the recession, they provided accessible alternatives: Family Dollar added about 1,000 stores between 2007 and 2012, and Dollar General added about 2,000.
Today, Family Dollar has more than 7,800 stores in 45 states; Dollar General has more than 10,000 stores in 40 states. And each company plans to add another 500 to 600 stores this year.
But all that growth is raising a specter from the past: community opposition reminiscent of the response to the big-box push by the likes of Wal-Mart.
This time, rather than objecting to the behemoths’ 100,000-plus square feet, activists are fighting the 7,000- to 9,000-square-foot stores proposed by the “small-box” retailers.
Both Family Dollar and Dollar General are light on stores in the Northeast. Each company has a few hundred stores in New York, but they have far fewer in New England.
In some picture-postcard communities in Vermont and Massachusetts, residents are trying to stop the expansion. Like the Wal-Mart opponents of decades past, they worry that Family Dollar and Dollar General will siphon money from village shops and invite sprawl at the edge of town.
Smart Growth Chester, for instance, was created two years ago when Dollar General proposed a store for the town located about 40 minutes north of Brattleboro, Vt., according to Vermont Public Radio. Other organized efforts against the small-box stores have popped up in Ferrisburgh, near Burlington, and in South Hero, located on an island in Lake Champlain.
In Massachusetts, a petition drive in Sheffield, near Great Barrington, sought to block Dollar General, contending the store’s utilitarian design clashed with New England quaintness, reported the Hill Country Observer, a monthly newspaper serving eastern New York, Vermont and the Berkshires.
Stacy Mitchell, a veteran of the big-box battles, said there is “virtually no scholarly research” to date on the community impact of the small-box retailers.
Mitchell is on the staff at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that offers technical assistance on environmentally friendly, community-centered economic development.
But she contended “the same dynamics are at play” in the small-boxes as with the big-box and chain stores: locally owned stores recirculate more of their revenue in the community than chain stores, studies show, and the arrival of big-box stores generally leads to a net decline in local jobs due to the loss of smaller, mom-and-pop shops.
“I’m now getting almost as many requests from community groups and local officials for help on dollar store projects as I am on Wal-Mart projects,” Mitchell said.
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at email@example.com.