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Making Big Box Stores Part of the Urban Fabric

Urban Target Store in Minneapolis (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Ahh, the urbanist’s dreaded big box. No one wants the thing in their neighborhood, but oh do we love having Trader Joes and Whole Foods nearby. Never mind that the Trader Joes moved into the old Wal-Mart space and the Whole Foods was built next door to a massive Petsmart, Babies R’ Us, and Target.

We need to be careful when we condemn the big box. You can keep talking if you are living completely off the land: making your own food, sewing your own clothes, even educating your children on site.How are these box stores any different from department stores, which have been around since the 1800s. Shopping plazas have been around for far longer than that and did not originate in the United States .Yet, why is it when it’s Wal-Mart or Costco and not Target or Barnes and Noble do we have the problems? Maybe it is because these stores were built and are continuing to be built to be car dependent? The stores take up too much room in the ‘burbs, therefore they must eat up the whole urban landscape? Also, there’s always the air of cheap or over-sized products. Also, there are the employee treatment issues and the “people” that shop there. However, we need to get over all these issues.

Having the boxes around has also allowed  us to possess more than we ever thought. Thanks to the supermarket, we can now have eggs or beer at any time of night in any metro(unless you are dry on Sunday mornings like we were even in NC metros for years). We don’t have to make our clothes, we can get all of them already made and cheap at Target.

I don’t mean for this post to be a slander or witch-hunt, however, I do want all of us to think about we manage our commerce. What stores could we really live without? Are there ways to make these stores better, such as pushing for them paying living wages and being taller and having less land mass around their stores?

Here’s what I think it will take for all box stores to succeed in the urban fabric:

Be Green: Seriously, have a LEED certification or some sort of historic redevelopment certification on the building. Consider having a green roof instead of a parking roof. Use natural light. Suburban Wal-Marts built in recent years have done a great job incorporating skylights. In an urban setting, the windows of the stores would be preserved and used as forms of light into upper floors. Use compact florescent if you must light the store via electronic means. Continue the work with suppliers to bring in local produce and reduce package sizes.

Reconfigure the store:
All big box stores should take the IKEA approach to selling their goods. Items that are difficult to carry down stairs or even on a Vermaport SC (a cart escalator commonly seen in urban stores), should be displayed in a special showroom area which can utilize higher floors and then be picked up at a special merchandise pick up area that is car friendly. Grocery should always be bottom floor, as it’s the most routine need in my opinion. Clothing, small appliances, electronics, music and books in their tangible forms and other objects that are not conventionally sold at grocery stores could occupy higher levels.

Free Delivery and A Prominent Package Pick-Up area:
Stores would not need parking if they offered these two options efficiently and carefully. The package pick-up area would be directly connected to a much smaller parking lot that also housed delivery trucks. Delivery trucks would have a bay and there would also be a lane for private vehicles.Sears does great with providing package pick-up areas. Many other stores have ship to store or ship home options now that are free or minimal cost.

Pay a Living Wage to Workers:
Wal-Mart was the main offender of this rule, but has taken steps to rectify issues with compensating and rewarding employees. With the revenue streams these stores produce being public, upping wages of employees is a goodwill measure to the public, as well as a stabilizer of the economy.

Be a good neighbor: Be willing to be the only anchor or locate yourself a few blocks away from the competition. Provide seed money to smaller businesses, that although are direct competitors in your category, offer a slightly different in-store experience that customers can alternate between. Be known for being the clean, but low price point and buy off the shelf store. Let the small store host the events, display the products and order the out of print or custom made products. Through it’s subsidiary Sam’s Club’s  small business loans, Wal-Mart could be financing lots of potential small-scale competitors. The loans will be targeted to firms led by women and minority groups, increasing the diversity of these ventures.Also, efforts to help schools, hospitals and other mission driven organizations and businesses to fund their causes and provide volunteers for their projects should continue.

These measures are not easy, nor cheap. A downtown Target store cost the chain 16 million to build. However, Chicago, New York, DC, Baltimore and countless other municipalities are figuring out ways to build big boxes in a urbanist manner.

So what did I miss? What else can we do to reconcile the price point and convenience of box stores with the need to maintain the traditional Main Streets and vibrant dense urban downtowns?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • CitizenZ

    I beg to respectfully disagree with the premise that this can big box stores are even suited for the urban environment.  The physical nature of those stores when you look at the volume of products, their arrangements in the store, the number of people that need to pass through those stores, and the amount of items that need to be purchased are incompatible with the the usual city density.  

    Those stores need cars!  More so than any other type of development.  Mass transit doesn’t allow you to carry the amount of product that it takes for these stores to work. Think about the last time you went to a big box.  Huge shopping carts are allowed to be pushed to the car because there is an acknowledgement  that the amount of product that you need to purchase per trip can’t be carried.

    Also the density of lots and zoning regulations (fire, parking, etc) transportation requirements and the cost to remedy them (subsurface parking for and new streets for instance) make the big box concept unworkable.

    • Anonymous

      To answer your concerns I want to clarify that the box store in its current
      size doesn’t belong in the city. However, Macy’s in New York and DC have the
      same sized footprint and sell things like matresses, bed frames and vacuums
      that need a vehicle to be carried out. People willingly pay delivery charges
      for these objects. Also, people will not stop needing large items that need
      to be delivered. What needs to continue to happen is to make these companies
      pay fair wages, adhere to form based and other sustainable zoning methods
      and offer free or reasonable delivery for these items. As it stands, these
      stores are not urban friendly. However, if the market is loud enough, they
      can be made smaller, fairer and higher quality. Wal-Mart’s already beginning
      to shrink even in rural areas and there are many mom and pop stores still
      existing that just need a bit of a marketing boost to help where these
      stores won’t go. However, to deprive people of a basic standard of living
      (food, basic clothing) in areas where only box stores exist and no mom and
      pops have adequate delis, health food and well made clothing is wrong.


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