Sarah McCammon of NPR speaks with Brian Vines, a reporter for Consumer reports, about the current popularity of dollar stores and why some communities are concerned.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The popularity of dollar stores has exploded during the pandemic. Research suggests that 88% of Americans at least sometimes shop at dollar stores. And about 4 in 10 new store openings in the country this year are dollar stores. But this proliferation worries some communities. Dollar stores have less choice for fresh foods. And for some neighborhoods, stores are their only place to shop. Brian Vines, a Consumer Reports reporter, is joining us now in talking about it.
BRIAN VINES: Hello, thank you for inviting me.
MCCAMMON: So in your story you have some pretty amazing statistics on the recent growth of dollar stores – more dollar stores than Starbucks and McDonald’s. Why are we currently seeing this almost exponential growth in the number of these stores?
VINES: In 1955, a father and son team decided to go into business and sell good things to the rich, but they ended up selling, in their own words, the cheap things to the poor. And the rest is history. They are the founders of Dollar General. And they have a business model that has really met that moment in the industry called retail, where everyone is always looking for a deal.
And as you explained earlier, some people only have the option of engaging with these dollar vein stores, and others are just finding out. So these are people from all walks of life in terms of socio-economic levels who engage with dollar stores. America loves a good deal.
MCCAMMON: Yeah, and America has always loved a good deal. But as we’ve heard, those numbers have really exploded, especially during the pandemic.
VINES: That’s right.
MCCAMMON: Is there a correlation?
VINES: Well, one phenomenon that we have noticed is the use of dollar stores by people who are at the higher end of the socio-economic scale. If you have a higher income and discovered dollar stores, for example, during the pandemic, when you wanted to avoid large grocery stores where you may have shopped in the past, and have seen those long lines, and you didn’t want to put on a hazmat suit and wait and walk around a 20,000 square foot grocery store, and you might have driven or noticed a little 12,000 square foot space, and you walk inside, and there’s eggs and milk and some of the basics and maybe the little things you’ve learned – and all of a sudden there’s a conversion that occurs.
So a store that you might not have thought of before can become a place where you go to stock up on certain items. In fact, all of the major retailers in this value retail segment – i.e. Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar – say they are the replacement store between big trips to make the grocery store. But this filler is a filler for people who don’t have greater options.
MCCAMMON: Brian, you write about your grandma looking for hidden gems in dollar stores. But I wonder how many of these you can still find today? I mean, what can you really get for a dollar in 2021?
VINES: The dollar stores from my childhood that I visited with my grandma are a far cry from those three department stores I just mentioned, where you could find weird things that seemed to fall out of a truck. But in dollar stores today, if you specifically walked through these three department stores, you will see many of the same national retail brands that you would find in another grocery store or big box store. . But what you might not be familiar with are the sizes they come in. They have…
MCCAMMON: Those tiny little tubes of toothpaste.
VINES: Tiny little tubes of toothpaste, smaller than average breakfast cereal – it’s like, honey, I shrunk the produce. But these are all the brands you know, at sizes that may seem a little strange to you.
MCCAMMON: Now these dollar stores, like we said, are popping up everywhere. How is this changing the way Americans shop?
VINES: I like to think of dollar stores as really like a microcosm of America. If you can tell me what your relationship is with a dollar store, I can draw conclusions about where you live, how much money you make, what you can do through your relationship with dollar stores . Some people see them as a way to run around and grab a quick box of Raisinets or Jujubes before a movie without paying five dollars at the movies. Other people really depend on them to feed their families and provide for themselves.
So the way we approach dollar stores is really kind of a story of how Americans are doing during this time, especially as we hope to emerge from this pandemic into a really new world that is emerging in terms of economic stability and mobility here.
MCCAMMON: But some communities are concerned about the proliferation of these stores. Why?
VINEYARDS: Many communities are affected, especially those with low incomes and lacking other retail options. For example, in East New Orleans, city council member Cyndi Nguyen made a proposal that was ultimately passed by the New Orleans Legislature to limit dollar store openings to less than three. miles from each other because her community, according to her constituents, was completely saturated because there were so many dollar stores that they believed were essentially stifling our competition.
We’ve seen the same thing happen in some places, in Alabama and elsewhere – Oklahoma was also one of the pioneering places where municipalities drafted legislation to limit the expansion of these dollar stores because when people rely on dollar stores, they don’t want to just grab their bullet and come home. But they would benefit from a more level playing field that would include things that communities demand, like more options for fresh fruits and vegetables.
MCCAMMON: Yes, in the face of some of these pushbacks, the Dollar Tree and Family Dollar spokesperson says the stores are actually helping tackle food insecurity by, citing, “by helping to alleviate the effects of food deserts. “. What do you think of this statement?
VINEYARDS: In Baldwin, Florida, when the mom and local grocer shut down, townspeople were left with two options. There was a truck stop where they could buy prepared food, and there was a dollar store. Seeing that this just wasn’t sustainable, the mayor of the city in fact, with charter buses – something he said was akin to herding cats to get his elders on those buses to travel 20 miles on the highway for shopping at a full-service boutique grocery store. They started a municipal grocery store and they broke even selling fresh fruit, vegetables and other things that people need in a supermarket. It changed the life of the city.
In fact, the director of Dollar General on the opening day of the supermarket said, thank goodness. We were under so much pressure here from people shopping. And that gives us a relief valve that people now had the option to go out of. So it makes a difference.
MCCAMMON: This is Brian Vines, reporter for Consumer Reports.
Thanks a lot, Brian.
VINEYARD: Thank you.
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