"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
February 11, 2014
The Big Box
by Adam Smith

My family is from south central Idaho. When I was just a lad, we would make a trip every year and spend a few weeks in a small (pop. 5,000) rural town. My grandparents on my mom’s and dad’s side were farmers. They had cows for milking and eating, they had some chickens running around that were available for any Sunday dinner and some in a coop where we would go and collect eggs to eat.

They had enormous gardens and fruit trees that produced enough food to eat during the summer, and then they canned the extra to eat during the winter. I do not recall ever going to the grocery store at any time during my youth while living out on the farm.

Many years later, my parents retired and moved back to Idaho. This would have been in the 1980s. The first time I went to visit them they needed to go to the grocery store. At the time I was living in the Phoenix area, and we had these big grocery stores with great selections and a lot of competition that kept the prices reasonable.

So when I went with my parents to the only grocery store in the town I was stunned. Shelves were only half filled, and the selection was minimal — if they had what you were looking for in the first place.

Then we went to the produce section, which I had anticipated would be great with all the farmers in the area. Instead it was less than pleasing to the eye. Selection was pitiful, and much of the produce was past its ripe stage.

Then it was on to the meat counter. Let’s just say that I was glad we were not getting any of the meat that was being offered that day. And the smell.

To make the experience complete, the prices were much higher than what I was used to in Arizona. This was the reality of small town USA. The grocery store was doing all they could to provide a service to the community, but it just was a mediocre buying experience.

Then came along a man named Walton. Sam — not John Boy.

Wal-Mart decided they were putting in a small (for them) store that would include a grocery store only 5 to 7 miles from my parents’ home.

The store had fresh produce, meat, a decent selection, and milk that was actually under the expiration date. And all for much less cost than the small store in town. My parents would still go buy a few items at the local store just to help support the owners, but it was not long before the local store closed because they could not compete with the big box store.

So many people criticize Wal-Mart. They destroy the local merchants. They kill jobs. But for many people who live out in remote areas of the country, Wal-Mart was a relief from the mediocrity people lived with all their lives. Wal-Mart brought low prices that allowed them to extend their money and live better lives.

Remember the movie You’ve Got Mail. The big mean big box book seller (Barnes & Noble, Borders) comes to town and puts the small book store out of business. They make Meg Ryan (cute, idealistic) the victim of this horrible slaughter.

Whenever I see that movie I always think of the people that could not afford to buy the books she was selling because she was charging too much money. Just like the grocery store in Idaho, Meg charged too much and the selection was terrible.

In that movie, the big box book store was the villain. Now, the big box book stores are going away. Amazon is just destroying them with better prices and almost unlimited selection.

I have to admit that this one hurts me and my family. We used to love to spend an entire evening down at Barnes & Noble, just browsing the different sections and sitting in those nice big chairs they used to have and sampling tons of books and buying too many. But somebody else has found a way to sell a wider selection at a cheaper cost. “The king is dead, long live the king,” I guess.

Wal-Mart looks invincible but they too will someday be vanquished. E-commerce most likely. When Wal-Mart is gone, so many of those people that do nothing but complain about the big box stores will reminisce about how there were these huge stores with lots of people in them and when you were in them it just felt like you were part of a community and you could just feel the vibrancy during the Christmas holidays (forgetting the stuff Wal-Mart puts in the aisles making it hard to get around and the terrible customer service).

This is just the free market. Creative destruction. People try to hold on the past and cry about the evils the new world will bring. Mom and pop stores > Big Box Stores > E-Commerce > ?

The next time you hear someone complain about the big box stores, just remember that for many of those complaining these will be the good old days.

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About Adam Smith

Adam Smith is obviously not the actual name of the author of this column. The real author has worked for two Fortune 500 companies, one privately held company, and a public accounting firm. His undergraduate degree was in accounting, and he earned an MBA for his graduate degree. He also has completed coursework for a PhD. in finance. He continues to be employed by one of the Fortune 500 companies.

The author grew up in the Washington D.C. area but also lived for several years in Arizona. He currently resides with his family on the East Coast.

The author has held various callings in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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