Opinion: A dollar store’s hidden costs
How the dollar store invasion is destroying communities
Small towns and big cities across the country are protesting against the opening of new dollar stores in their neighborhoods. One would expect the opening of new and cheaper shops to be welcomed by thrifty consumers, however, the negative impacts of these stores far outweigh the lower prices. These dollar store invasions drive out established grocery stores and leave communities with substandard food resources and economic opportunities.
Dollar stores are everywhere. As of 2022, the industry duopoly — Dollar General and Dollar Tree — has over 37,000 locations in the United States. That’s more stores than Walmart, Starbucks, McDonalds and Target combined, according to a March 2023 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
This invasion of new dollar stores in urban, rural and suburban environments is creating lasting negative impacts on local economies and communities. These stores aren’t just placed in poor neighborhoods, they make neighborhoods poorer. The extremely low prices offered at dollar stores deeply cut other grocery outlets’ loss of profits and business, detrimentally affecting the local economy as a whole
David Procter, the director of the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University, was quoted in the ILSR’s 2023 report saying, “Our research shows grocers are barometers for other businesses in town: as goes the grocery store, so goes other independent businesses in that community.”
The proliferation of dollar stores hurts communities in more ways than economic injury. With a loss of access to fresh and nutritious food sources in these poor neighborhoods, communities are at an even larger risk of malnutrition.
Malnutrition and poverty are inextricably linked. Improper nutrition leaves communities susceptible to lower psychological and physical health that result in lower economic mobility potential. This is especially harmful for children because malnutrition impairs cognitive development and motor skills causing lower academic performance and future aptitude.
In turn, reduced economic means lowers communities’ access to effective nutrition. Dollar stores further encourage this feedback loop as dollar stores typically only offer highly processed and artificial food options that lack necessary nutrition.
Improper nutrition does not only reduce one’s potential, it can also increase the likelihood of criminal behavior. A highly processed and sugary diet, the main food offerings in a dollar store, has links to aggression and impulsivity. Furthermore, lacking certain vitamins contributes to lowered physical wellness and impaired cognitive abilities like concentration, mood and sleep. All of these factors alone do not cause a person to commit crimes, but malnutrition is one element that is often underlooked. When grocery stores that offer fresh items are pushed out of business by dollar stores, the effects of malnutrition are only exacerbated.
Birmingham, Alabama enacted a law in 2019 to limit the number of dollar stores in the city. Most of the city, 69 percent, is in a food desert, an urban area where it’s difficult to purchase affordable and healthy food. The city aimed to prevent dollar stores from further decreasing access to nutritious options. Some other towns and cities are trying similar policies, but the number of stores is still exponentially increasing across the country.
Dollar stores also negatively affect labor. Dollar General violated federal law last July after attempting to interfere with store employee efforts to unionize in Connecticut, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Elsewhere, employees of Dollar General stores in the South are attempting to organize, but shy away from full unionization fearing corporate retaliation. Additionally, various occupational hazards across Dollar General locations make employee’s jobs potentially life-threatening. In New Orleans an employee was forced to block fire exits to prevent shoplifters.
Organizations like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance argue that local retaliation against dollar store invasions are a good step forward, but it’s time for federal intervention. Dollar store giants won’t stop engaging in anticompetitive behavior, violating labor laws or causing local economic strife. Their practices deteriorate local communities for profit. This is not only abhorrent, but illegal. The Department of Justice must launch an investigation and trial against the duopoly, Dollar Tree and Dollar General.
Jelinda Montes is a senior in the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication and the assistant opinion editor for The Eagle.
This article was edited by Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti.