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Superstores Remake America


There's an old American adage that there are three things you'd best be careful about discussing: religion, politics, and sex.

But there's a fourth subject that can quickly ignite an argument: Are big-box stores a good thing or the worst thing that ever happened to your town?

Warehouse-sized stores (many 10,000 square meters or more) do indeed look like big, one-story, often windowless, boxes. Many also carry lots of items in big boxes -- such as television sets, computers, and mega-crates of cat food -- that must be delivered by forklift to your car. Erected in what were once farm fields outside every decent-sized U.S. town, these retail giants have come to define suburbia and the American shopping experience.

So why do some people hate them so?

Here's what some people say:

"They're ugly."

"They're overwhelming."

"They're a traffic nightmare."

"Their wages are low, and they fight to keep out unions."

"With their volume and prices, the big boys put mom-and-pop stores out of business, and downtown shrivels up and dies."

"Big-box stores suck the character out of a town."

"And they all look the same. You could be in Wyoming or Alabama and not know the difference."

But wait a minute! Many people think otherwise:

"You can't beat the prices!"

"There's lots to choose from."

"They save me time."

"I don't have to run all over town."

"They employ lots of people."

"And the taxes they pay help support the town."

Many U.S. communities walk a middle line by limiting the size of big-box stores and sometimes requiring that smaller retailers be offered space out front or next door. And they've launched campaigns to lure shoppers back downtown, with mixed results.

So it seems that big-box stores are like another axiom, often applied to men by women and women by men: "You can't live with 'em, but you can't live without 'em."