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Big Box Toolkit

| Written by Stacy Mitchell | 3 Comments | Updated on Dec 23, 2011 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at
Big-Box Tool Kit


There are many reasons why communities seek to stop a big-box proposal — the effect on local economic development and small businesses, traffic congestion, environmental issues, community impacts, low-paying jobs. Whatever your concerns, however, the main way most communities succeed in preventing the development of a big-box store is through the local land use system.

Don’t worry if you know nothing about land use policy. Most citizens who succeed in stopping a big-box development started out with very little knowledge of or experience with planning and zoning. This guide and the other resources in the Big-Box Tool Kit will explain not only how to navigate your local land use policies, but also how to organize a citizen-based campaign to stop a big-box proposal and to make permanent changes to your local policies to put citizens in control of how the community grows and develops.

Citizens groups often succeed in blocking big-box proposals. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Sociology, between 1998 and 2005, citizens organized to block Walmart proposals in 563 locations. In 366 of those sites, Walmart was either defeated or withdrew its proposal.


Click here to see the best available research on the impacts of big-box retailers. We provide summaries of the primary findings of more than three dozen studies that examine such questions as: Does Walmart boost employment? Do big-box stores increase tax revenue? Do independent businesses keep more money circulating locally?

Also see these additional studies:

Living Wage Policies and Big-box Retail: How a Higher Wage Standard Would Impact Walmart Workers and Shoppers” [PDF]. UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, April 2011.

About 900,000 Walmart workers, or 65 percent of its U. S. workforce, are paid less than $12 an hour. More than one-fifth earn less than $9 an hour. Overall, Walmart’s hourly workers earn 12.4 percent less than retail workers as a whole. This study finds that raising their pay to a minimum of $12 an hour would lift many out of poverty, reduce their reliance on public assistance, and cost the average consumer, at most, $12.49 a year.

Reviewing and Revising Walmart’s Benefits Strategy” [PDF]. Memo to Walmart Board of Directors from Susan Chambers, Walmart’s executive vice president for benefits, October 2005.

This internal memo leaked to Walmart Watch assesses Walmart’s current health care benefits and offers strategies to both reduce the company’s health insurance costs and neutralize criticism of its employment practices. The memo reports that only 48 percent of the company’s employees are enrolled in its insurance plan, compared to an average of 68 percent for national employers. Excessive out-of-pocket costs, including expensive premiums and high deductibles, are to blame. “Our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Walmart has a significant percentage of Associates and their children on public assistance,” the memo notes. Employees enrolled in Walmart’s insurance plan spend an average of 8 percent of their income on health care, nearly twice the national average. Almost 40 percent spend more than 16 percent of their income, a crippling cost for workers who earn less than $20,000 a year on average. The memo also reports that Walmart has a larger share of its employees and their children enrolled in Medicaid compared to other companies. “In total, 46 percent of Associates’ children are either on Medicaid or are uninsured,” it notes. The memo offers strategies for reducing Walmart’s health care costs, including increasing the percentage of part-time employees and “design[ing] all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart gathering).” The latter recommendation aims to “dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Walmart.”

What Do We Know About Walmart?” [PDF]. Annette Bernhardt, Anmol Chaddha, and Siobhán McGrath, Brennan Center for Justice, August 2005.

This scrupulously fact-checked and footnoted report outlines what we know about Walmart, in terms of its wages, health insurance benefits, compliance with labor laws, and cost to states. It details average starting wages for various job classifications. It reports that Walmart employees earn 20 percent less than retail workers on average. It outlines the out-of-pocket costs, coverage limitations, and eligibility requirements for the retailer’s health insurance plan, and compiles information on what various states are spending to provide Medicaid to uninsured Walmart employees and their children. The report also summarizes Walmart’s record of labor law violations.

Shopping for Subsidies: How Walmart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never-Ending Growth” [PDF]. Good Jobs First, August 2004.

This study identifies 244 Walmart stores and distribution centers in 35 states that have received state and local development subsidies totaling just over $1 billion. The subsidies took many forms, including property tax rebates, free or reduced-priced land, and funding of site preparation and on-site infrastructure. Tax increment financing (TIF) ranked as one of the most common mechanisms used by local governments to underwrite Walmart’s growth. The total value of public giveaways to Walmart is undoubtedly much higher than the $1 billion documented by the report. Obtaining complete data on subsidies is virtually impossible. In most states, local governments and state agencies are not required to report subsidies, and there is no centralized record or database. Good Jobs First relied primarily on the online archives of local newspapers to assemble the list of subsidy deals, the details of which were confirmed by interviews with local officials.

“Impacts of Development on DuPage County Property Taxes.” DuPage County Development Department for the County Regional Planning Commission, Illinois, October 1991.

This study demonstrated that the costs of encouraging new commercial development—extending highways and utilities, expanding municipal services like police and fire protection, and providing development financing and incentives—exceeded the new property and sales tax revenues the new development generated. The study concluded “… there is a significant statistical relationship between new development (both residential and nonresidential) and increases in personal property taxes.”


Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses — by Stacy Mitchell, Beacon Press, 2006

“In the muckraking tradition of Fast Food Nation, this is a searing indictment of the impact of behemoth retailers… Mitchell also provides inspiring lessons from places that are turning the tide.”  —Seattle Post-Intelligencer 


Big-Box Blight: The Spread of Dark Stores A growing number of towns are inundated with chronically vacant big-box stores and shopping centers. Here’s how to prevent big-box blight in your community.

Five Myths About Big-Box Retail Do big-box stores really create jobs, boost tax revenue, and grow the economy? This fact sheet counters common myths about big-box development.

How Big is Too Big Help people visualize and understand just how big these stores are and how their size affects the community and local economy.

Impact of Big-Box Stores on Jobs and Wages Despite substantial evidence that big-box stores reduce employment and lower wages, many local officials still believe these stores are job creators. Set the record straight.

Impact of Big-Box Stores on Taxes and Public Costs When evaluating retail development proposals, municipal officials often focus on only one side of the equation: the amount of new tax revenue that the project will generate. It’s easy to overlook the fact that big-box stores and shopping centers also create new costs.

Impact of Big-Box Stores on Traffic A 200,000- square-foot superstore typically generates more than 10,000 car trips on weekdays and more on Saturdays.

Locally Owned vs. Chain: The Local Premium While dollars spent at locally owned stores stimulate the local economy, dollars spent at chains are siphoned out of the community.

Toxic Runoff: How Big-Box Stores Pollute Lakes and Streams Polluted storm water runoff from big-box parking lots is a major threat to lakes, streams, and estuaries.

Walmart’s Impact on Police Costs Many cities report that big-box retailers generate large numbers of police calls, creating new costs for local government and reducing police presence and response times in other areas.


Q: A major retail development is proposed for our town. The developer is insisting that big-box stores do not harm small business. He references a study called “Has Walmart Buried Mom and Pop?” which was published in an academic journal. Is this study valid? How do we respond? – Resident of New Scotland, New York

Q: There’s an effort underway here in Tucson to place a measure on the ballot that would repeal a city ordinance limiting big-box development. How common is it for retail chains to use voter initiatives to try to clear the way for their projects? How often do they win these votes? – Resident of Tucson, Arizona

Q: What is the impact of Walmart on local property tax values? – Member of the San Diego Labor Council

Q: Our city is currently fighting to keep an existing Walmart from turning into a supercenter. Do you how many truck deliveries a typical Walmart supercenter receives every day? I think this would be great information to spread to neighborhood residents. – Concerned Resident of Vadnais Heights, MN

Q: What can my community do to avoid ending up with vacant big-box stores like I’ve seen in so many other places? – Geneseo, New York


Fighting Big Boxes:

  • Sprawl-Busters Sprawl-Busters has helped countless citizen groups block big-box projects. They can provide advice and help you design and execute a local campaign.

Commissioning an Economic Impact Study:

  • Community Land Use and Economics This top-notch consulting firm does economic impact studies of proposed big-box projects, retail market analyses, independent business development plans, and much more.
  • Civic Economics Another first-rate consulting firm, which specializes in economic impact analyses and strategic planning.

Strengthening Locally Owned Businesses:

  • American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) Terrific resources and how-to assistance for forming an Independent Business Alliance and starting a “buy local” campaigns. In more than two dozen cities, AMIBA has helped launch campaigns that have succeeded in making “locally owned” a selling point.
  • Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) Dynamic organization working to build local business networks to foster sustainable, community-based economies. Offers detailed how-to resources for developing “Local First” campaigns.
  • National Main Street Center Highly effective model and many great resources for revitalizing your downtown and neighborhood business districts.

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About Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and directs its Community-Scaled Economy Initiative, which produces research and analysis, and partners with a range of allies to design and implement policies that curb economic consolidation and strengthen community-rooted enterprise.  She is the author of Big-Box Swindle and also produces a popular monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin.  Connect with her on twitter and catch her TEDx Talk: Why We Can’t Shop Our Way to a Better Economy. More

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