Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dollar General: Passing the Savings onto No One

The stanky Walmart bag story reminded me of another low cost mecca of the South (one that also exists up North but less noticeably so), Dollar General.  I wasn't born in a palace, so I'm familiar with dollar stores.  When I was a little kid, I thought they were great because I could actually afford to buy things there, making me feel like an adult.  A standard summer vacation of ours was to drive out to the suburbs of Cleveland (on a single tank of gas, as was noted each year) to visit family, and one of the highlights was always the Big Lots discount store they had out there.  We didn't have Big Lots in my hometown at the time (not true now).  I ended up with a lot of unused fishing lures from that store, and I loved them all.  I think most of the reason they make fishing lures so flashy is to attract humans to buy them, not fish to eat them.  Best I can remember, fish mostly wanted balled up pieces of cheddar.

Now that I'm an adult, dollar stores elicit a different emotional response.  The first is a bit of disgust with the realization that cheap, shiny goods were intended as a starter kit for a future of purchase-based personal-satisfaction.  You're not buying garbage, you're buying smiles.  The second is a bit of sadness as those stores are usually a depressing reflection of the local economy.  Dollar stores, pawn shops, and check cashing joints are usually a really bad sign for the future of a small town.  There will usually be a few adult bookstores sprinkled in there too.

$6.99 is a good deal...

Throughout Mississippi, 'Bama, GA, and SC, Dollar General was everywhere.  As my ride down to Asheville was done mostly at night, I never had a chance to pop in and see what necessitated such brick-and-mortar frequency.  But on my way back to Philly, a daytime crawl, I had plenty of opportunities to explore the aisles.  And guess what?  I get it now.  Dollar General is a mini-Walmart, so if you can't make it to Walmart, go to Dollar General.  They have a wall of refrigerators and freezers, aisles full of discount food, and even a hardware section.  Everything you could possibly need.  (I bought more than a few $1/bag salted pumpkin seeds on my way down, as well as a few bags of Knorr Noodles.)

But unlike Walmart, the only options were real bottom of the barrel options.  It's not so much that everything was inexpensive, as much as everything was cheap.  Food with no nutritional value, walls of soda, home goods that have a life expectancy of maybe two uses.  As I watched people push entire grocery carts up to check-out, it occurred that only a few explanations could cover the need to buy that much from a Dollar General:

  1. No other stores in the area
  2. Broke
  3. Raised that way/Don't know any better
All three of those possibilities can be directly tied to a downturned economy.  If there are no other stores, it could mean that other stores started and failed, or chains researched the locally economy and didn't see the town as a viable expansion option.  If Dollar General is just people's preference, it's either out of necessity or habit.  People that don't need Dollar General don't decide to suddenly become Dollar General people.  And once you're a Dollar General person, there's no way out.  You go there because you're broke.  Then you buy cheap products that break right away and have to go back to buy more.  Now you've spent twice as much but still only have the cheap good that's going to break again.  Eventually you spend 10x as much on a piece of garbage, so you're broker than before and need Dollar General more than ever.  You should buy it again.

And then it becomes generational.  All that cheap food?  Oh yeah, it's terrible for you.  So you eat the high sodium instant food, have a heart attack at 50, end up in the hospital, but you're broke (hence shopping at Dollar General) and you've been firmly against socialized welfare because you don't want handouts from Washington D.C., so you survive for a bit at the hospital equivalent of Dollar General, but the years of eating poorly can't be fixed, and tens of thousands of dollars later you die, dropping the bill on your kids who are now guaranteed a life of Dollar General.  Do you really think this is not by design???

Speaking of dying (economies, this time), growing up, my home town had two grocery stores five minutes away.  The bigger of the two is now a discount grocery outlet that sells cheese labeled by color, not type.  The smaller disappeared over a decade ago.  Within a mile of that grocery store is now a Dollar General, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, and Dollar Plaza.  These are all actual, not-made-up-off-the-top-of-my-head places.  Probably not moving back there.

All that said, I now live in Seattle, a city not known for its dollar stores.  There is, however, a deconstructed coffee house, which I find an equally troubling reflection of the local economy.  Deconstructed coffee is coffee that hasn't been mixed for you.  Like, people are paying extra to pour in their own cream and sugar.  It's just another thing people buy to prove that they're wealthy.  Like Jaguars and Apple Watches.  To prove that money is but for novelty.  Because there aren't any real problems here, like homeless tent villages and high addiction rates, so spend the money on having people not pour cream into your coffee.  

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