OPINION: DeKalb knows a wealth of dollar stores is of no value

Loading time for shopper favorites at the Dollar General in South DeKalb. Photo by Bill Torpy
Loading time for shopper favorites at the Dollar General in South DeKalb. Photo by Bill Torpy

Dollar stores are called the “invasive species” of retail, a rapidly growing kudzu that’s helping to destroy establishments that Walmart and Amazon haven’t already killed.

It's an economic race to the bottom, so DeKalb County Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson has led an effort to enact a 45-day moratorium on new dollar stores in unincorporated parts of the county. Stonecrest has already banned them.

“We have to watch out for oversaturation and proliferation,” she said. “I don’t think they should be on every corner.”

Cochran-Johnson overstates the issue. Actually, they're on every other corner. There are almost 70 in DeKalb, according to her count, a quarter of them opening in the past three years.

The growth of dollar stores has been steady the past decade, picking up speed after the Great Recession. As they say, the poor get poorer, but they still must buy stuff.

That’s where dollar stores come in. The two biggies — Dollar General and Dollar Tree (which owns Family Dollar) — operate some 30,000 stores nationally, about 10,000 more than a decade ago. Most are in rural areas or low-income urban neighborhoods. And there are plans to open perhaps 20,000 more, which would make Cochran-Johnson’s store-on-every-corner prediction come true.

According to Forbes, "They tend to cluster, like scavengers feasting on the carcasses of the dead," adding that the big dollar chains have more stores "than the six biggest U.S. retailers — Walmart, Kroger, Costco, Home Depot, CVS and Walgreens — combined."

Holy Shrinking Bottom Line, Batman!

Dollar stores are increasingly popular, especially in low-income urban neighborhoods or in rural areas. Photo by Bill Torpy
Dollar stores are increasingly popular, especially in low-income urban neighborhoods or in rural areas. Photo by Bill Torpy

It’s a story catching on in the past couple of years. Bloomberg quoted commercial real estate analyst Garrick Brown saying, “Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America. It’s based on the concept that the jobs went away, and the jobs are never coming back, and that things aren’t going to get better in any of these places.”

Talk about dystopian.

Cochran-Johnson, who came to office this year, said that while campaigning she kept hearing residents in central and south DeKalb say, "We want more economic development. We don't want more dollar stores."

Research shows that dollar stores, which provide frozen and processed groceries, can whittle away at supermarkets' bottom lines, causing the larger stores to close or not enter certain areas. This means that those areas will be without stores carrying fresh produce and healthy food items. They're called "food deserts."

Cochran-Johnson said a lawyer who works in real estate told her Kroger will not sign a lease in a strip mall that allows dollar stores. "That was alarming to me," she said. "When they proliferate, they can have a devastating impact on the community. So, is a good deal really a good deal?"

A Dollar General spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that ordinances such as those in Stonecrest and other cities are “restrictive” and could cause people to “travel further or spend more money on everyday needs.”

A customer leaves the Family Dollar at the intersection of Covington Highway and DeKalb Medical Parkway in Lithonia on Dec. 16, 2019. Three different dollar stores are located at that intersection. The city of Stonecrest has passed a measure banning new dollar stores from coming to the city, with leaders arguing the stores project a negative image. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
A customer leaves the Family Dollar at the intersection of Covington Highway and DeKalb Medical Parkway in Lithonia on Dec. 16, 2019. Three different dollar stores are located at that intersection. The city of Stonecrest has passed a measure banning new dollar stores from coming to the city, with leaders arguing the stores project a negative image. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Dollar stores indicate an area is low-income. When you go to a strip mall with a dollar store, there’s a good chance that if you turn your head you’ll spot a walk-in nail shop or a title loan joint.

Still, research shows that folks love dollar stores. They have high favorability ratings, according to Morning Consult Brand Intelligence. The polls found that 62% of U.S. adults said Dollar Tree Inc. has had a “positive effect on their community.” Family Dollar got positive ratings from 57% of those polled and Dollar General from 56%. In comparison, McDonald’s got 52%, Starbucks 51% and Target 59%.

I must admit, I’m in that group. Who can have a problem with cheap dish soap, toilet paper or dog treats?

ajc.com

During a recent visit to a Dollar Tree, I picked up eight items, including paper plates, paper towels, some Christmas stocking stuffers and a sawed-off can of Pringles. Eight items, eight bucks.

Buying extra junk is a gimme when visiting a dollar store.

DeKalb resident Theodus Perry, who was visiting a Dollar Tree across from South DeKalb Mall, said he picked up nine items when he went to grab just a few two-for-a-dollar Christmas cards.

“You always get stuff you don’t need,” he said, laughing.

I picked that location because you can see a Family Dollar across the street. And in the sad strip mall behind that is a Dollar General. And yes, two of the three stores are near drop-in nail parlors.

So Cochran-Johnson certainly has a point, one that Perry acknowledges, even as he holds a bag of Dollar Tree merch. “I think there are too many, too close together,” he said. “I’d like to see better grocery stores.”

Another thing, he added. “They cause a lot of crime. There’s guys standing around the parking lot looking for trouble.”

I Googled “DeKalb, dollar store and ajc” and immediately was traumatized. Here are the headlines that popped up:

• Customer shoots, kills armed robber inside DeKalb Family Dollar

• DeKalb cops seek dollar store bandit

• Police say 3 men were arguing before stabbing at Family Dollar in DeKalb

• Dollar General robbers connected to another crime

• Cops arrest robbery suspect accused of holding gun to pregnant cashier's head

• 'I told you not to pull the gun out': Man slashed during attempted carjacking

• Dollar General manager accused of stealing from store, setting it on fire.

And that was the first search page!

Now, in fairness to dollar stores, I'd wager they don't necessarily draw more crime. They are just located in areas where scary stuff happens.

Still, in 15 interviews outside dollar stores Monday, I found an overwhelming majority of people who said such stores were vital to their existence. (I know, I know, these are dollar store shoppers. They’re biased in favor of the stores.)

Tyree McGhee leaves a Dollar Tree in south DeKalb County with bags stuffed with 40 items. “It’s good for people who don’t have money,” she said. Photo by Bill Torpy
Tyree McGhee leaves a Dollar Tree in south DeKalb County with bags stuffed with 40 items. “It’s good for people who don’t have money,” she said. Photo by Bill Torpy

Tyree McGhee, who makes $12 an hour working at a major big box store, walked out of Dollar Tree lugging four packed bags. “I got Christmas candy, Christmas cards, coffee mugs, painting items, Barbies; $40 for 40 items!” she said, hoisting her bags. “You can’t beat that.”

Dollar stores “are good for people who don’t have money,” the mother of four said. “I don’t get food stamps. I’ve got to work. I think (limiting the number of such stores) would hurt families like me.”

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