As a small business in Abingdon, this essay from Blue Hills Market is written with some obvious self-
interest: a desire to protect a small business that, as is the case with so many in our region, is
threatened each day by the increasing presence of large corporate big box stores and by consumers who
neglect to support local and main street businesses.
If this threat were isolated to the survivability of our small business community, it would be frightening
enough. The challenge, however, goes well beyond these businesses; it entails a massive cost that lands
inevitably in the pockets of local consumers and taxpayers.
Lured by the promise of low prices and many (albeit low paying) new jobs, our local governments have
successfully competed for some big-name national retailers. They have pursued these retail
corporations regardless of evidence that shows the many long-range problems associated with them. In
the last few years, for example, we have witnessed in Southwest Virginia and in East Tennessee the
development of at least two major shopping centers that have attracted, at least for now, innumerable
national chain stores and have enticed many chain stores already present in the area to relocate from
other, now vacant retail developments.
Meanwhile, small local and main street businesses, which receive in our region little in the way of local
government support, struggle for survival. They do so in spite of a wealth of evidence that suggests such
businesses still account for the bulk of job creation in our region and in our country. They struggle in
spite of information that suggests that our region will pay a high cost over the long run for the low prices
and low-wage jobs we may receive in the short term by buying into the big box culture.
Some of those high costs include the following:
Higher taxes: Inevitably, because of the massive infrastructural support of these large enterprises, roads
must be built and maintained and fire and police protection must be enhanced. Those needs can’t be
met by those same large retailers when those expenses are often waived or their tax bills are largely
forgiven. So, guess who pays?
Lower wages: In addition to major tax incentives, low wages are the lifeblood of big box stores. In order
to provide rock-bottom and below-cost prices intended to knock out the small retail competition in their
areas, chain store retailers rely heavily on low wages and reduced benefits for their employees. Walmart
is often the target for this criticism, but it is true of virtually every major national brand retailer in the
A loss of jobs: In many cases, particularly in rural locations, corporate nationals abandon retail
developments after the tax incentives dry up and, even after raising prices to cover costs, they are not
able to succeed. As a result, they move on to the next incentivized location, leaving dozens if not
hundreds of people without jobs and, because many local small businesses are shut down by the
competition, without other employers to pick up the slack.
Environmental impact: It’s not just about the complaints of tree-huggers here. It’s not just about
destroyed ecosystems, wildlife habitats and carbon-reducing green spaces. It’s not just the physical
blight of abandoned retail centers. Massive chain store retail developments, even those with the best
intentions for the economy, have forever replaced thousands of acres of valuable farm land, which force
our communities to rely more and more on far-away food sources that inevitably lead to less nutritional
food at a higher price.
If you’re concerned about these high costs and about the health of our communities, as we are, here’s
what you can do:
Buy local: This may seem to be an over-worn phrase. However, given the costs outlined above – and the
many more not described here – the buy-local movement becomes more than just a call to support local
retailers; it is about supporting long-term growth that preserves the strength of our environment, our
families, our communities and, indeed, our country.
Buy local first: Many of us will pop into a Sams, a Walmart or an Aldi because they may be the only
providers of many options. That is the result of a retail world that allows large corporations access at a
lower cost to many suppliers not available always to smaller businesses. But you can help by maintaining
communication with your local small business retailer about your big box purchases, allowing that small
business owner an opportunity to place special orders for you and being patient about some of the
comparable inconveniences, including higher prices, that may come from dealing with smaller
Become an activist consumer: Help educate your friends and neighbors about the impact of their
choices to support subsidized corporations. Help them to understand that, even in their support of these
larger stores, there are ways that they also can be supportive of small businesses. Remind them of not
only what they sacrifice by supporting big-name corporate retailers, but also of what they gain in terms
of a better economy and an enhanced community in the long run by supporting their local mom-and-
Remember, this is not a political issue: It is an American issue. All of us long for the time when our main
streets were vibrant and when they represented not only a place of commerce and jobs, but also
centers of community. More than perhaps any common environment, our main streets and our small
businesses are the most important backdrop to our American story.