If you’ve ever lived in a town where one of your main shopping choices is one of the “Dollar” stores, this should be the least surprising news ever:
Dollar Tree/Family Dollar and Dollar General will pay the State of New York $1.2 million as part of a settlement for selling expired drugs and obsolete motor oil, the N.Y. Attorney General announced on Monday.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been spending a lot of time (months) in the small town in the Dakotas where I grew up, to help with my aging parents. When I was growing up, there were plenty of clean, well-lit places to do retail shopping. As time went by, more people went to the “big towns” to shop at discount stores, and a lot of those local merchants dried up. But we could always count on the local Shopko Hometown store, which was no Wal-Mart (laugh if you will), but was still well-lit, clean and decently stocked.
Shopko went bankrupt recently, so all of their stores have closed. With Shopko leaving the scene, the last national retailer that tried to keep up the facade of even a modicum of customer respect has left town. What’s left is a few local retailers, a Dollar General and a Family Dollar.
I remember hearing a co-worker who had once worked for Dayton-Hudson (Target’s parent company) say that Target tried to compete with Wal-Mart by keeping stores cleaner, better lit and better stocked. I’ve been in some grim Wal-Marts here in bigger cities in New York, yet most of the Targets here are still pretty clean and bright. Out West, however, if a small town is big enough to have a Wal-Mart, it is generally about as nice as a Target, and the employees are relatively intelligent and helpful, since a Wal-Mart job is actually a decent one by the awful standards of our time. In other words, Wal-Mart at least tries to keep a pleasant store.
Not so at Family Dollar and Dollar General. Dollar General, in my experience, is the worst. The cookie-cutter stores are built like caves, with few if any windows. The aisles are barely wide enough for two carts to pass. The lighting is dim. The floor is bare concrete. Stocking is spotty – it is very common to have stocking trays partially blocking the aisles, and many items are often missing from the shelves. There’s often just one or maybe two employees visible, and they work the till. Most of the stock is the lowest of low-end shit from China.
When you walk into a Dollar General, it is crystal clear that you are involved in a take it or leave it proposition. They know that it will take a pretty long drive for you to find someplace with a better selection and nicer displays, so why bother with either? Expired ibuprofen is better than no ibuprofen: so either fucking buy it, or don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.
I’ve driven over 10,000 miles this year, a lot of it on back roads through small towns. I’ve started using the presence of Dollar General along with the absence of other retail as an index of decline of a town. Instead of going to the local diner to interview folks on a Trump voter safari, maybe the Times will send their next expedition to a few Dollar Generals. They might at least learn a little bit about what it means for citizens of a town to feel like they’re lost and left behind.