In the Chicago Tribune: Why Chicago Needs to Limit Dollar Stores

Date: 15 Feb 2024 | posted in: agriculture, Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In October 2023, Alderman Matt O’Shea, who represents Chicago’s 19th Ward, introduced an ordinance that would limit chain dollar store expansion in the city. It would also give the city the ability to suspend the business license of a dollar store that racks up two or more nuisance violations, such as overflowing trash dumpsters, unsafe working conditions, or excessive scanner errors. O’Shea initially had support from a majority of his fellow city council members — but Dollar Tree/Family Dollar quickly deployed lobbyists to line up opposition to the proposed ordinance from the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, which advocated watering down the ordinance.

Tulsa City Council Member Vanessa Hall-Harper and ILSR Senior Researcher Kennedy Smith testified for a hearing on the proposed ordinance, then wrote the following letter to the editor of The Chicago Tribune rebutting a Tribune editorial that criticized the proposed dollar store restriction.

Read their letter here or below.

Proliferation of dollar stores

The Tribune Editorial Board gets it right when it says that dollar stores tend not to be beloved. But it gets it wrong when it says that if shoppers didn’t like chain dollar stores, they wouldn’t walk through their doors (“Dollar stores deserve scrutiny, not targeting,” Jan. 29). If shoppers don’t have the benefit of a full-service grocery store nearby, they have little choice but the dollar store. The more dollar stores the city permits, the fewer full-service grocery stores there will be.

Eliminating food deserts requires many solutions. But there is one absolutely essential action: preventing dollar stores from proliferating. By oversaturating neighborhoods, they leech sales away from existing food stores. Grocers report losing as much as 40% of their sales when a dollar store opens nearby. Shaving off even a small percentage can kill a grocery store — and, when it closes, the neighborhood loses a crucial anchor, setting off a chain reaction of challenges.

When one of us, Tulsa, Oklahoma, City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, tried to recruit a national grocery chain to her district, every single company turned her down. Why? Because her district was overrun with dollar stores, and none of the grocers believed there would be enough unmet market demand for one of their stores to survive there.

She didn’t give up. She successfully pushed for an ordinance mandating a minimum 1-mile distance between new and existing dollar stores. Then she launched an initiative to create a full-service grocery store. Partnering with the Tulsa Economic Development Corp., the city and others, she helped raise the money to build a grocery store building and find someone local with the skills needed to own and operate the business. Oasis Fresh Market opened more than two years ago. It’s a unique hybrid for-profit store and nonprofit community hub — and it’s building local wealth, rather than sending profits off to distant shareholders.

Every city can do what Tulsa has done. But it requires the political will to do the hard work needed to create the options the city’s neighborhoods really need, rather than giving in to dollar stores’ relentless push to put a store on every street corner.

Relegating neighborhoods to dollar stores sends a message that residents don’t deserve better. We believe that the city of Chicago wants better options for its residents — and, with every new dollar store that enters a neighborhood, those options slip further away.

— Vanessa Hall-Harper, city councilor, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Kennedy Smith, senior researcher, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Arlington, Virginia

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Kennedy Smith

Kennedy Smith is a Senior Researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Independent Business Initiative. Her work focuses on analyzing the factors threatening independent businesses and developing policy and programmatic tools that communities can use to address these issues and build thriving, equitable local economies.

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Follow Susan Holmberg:
Susan Holmberg

Susan Holmberg is Senior Editor and Researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Independent Business Initiative. She writes on corporate power and inequality and has been published in the New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, The Nation, and Democracy Journal.