At the end of last year, we published an in-depth report about how dollar store chains are targeting struggling city neighborhoods and small towns. We found growing evidence that the growth of dollar stores is not merely a byproduct of economic distress. These chains are a cause of it.
In less than a decade, the two dominant chains — Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which bought Family Dollar in 2015 — multiplied from 20,000 locations combined to nearly 30,000 today, and have plans to build 20,000 more stores.
By saturating communities with multiple outlets, dollar stores have made it much harder for full-service grocery stores to succeed, our report found, leaving neighborhoods with fewer jobs and reduced access to fresh, healthy food. Although most dollar stores sell only a limited selection of packaged foods, many people now rely on these chains for groceries.
These findings clearly resonated. Our reporting drew more than 100,000 readers to our website. People across the country reached out to share their own stories about how dollar stores are invading their communities — and just how pervasive they now are.
Hearing these stories prompted us to investigate and map dollar stores across eight U.S. cities: Atlanta, Ga.; Dallas, Texas; Louisville, Ky.; Newark, N.J.; New Orleans, La.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Washington, D.C.
By mapping the locations of Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar stores alongside demographic data from the U.S. Census, we can see the extent to which dollar stores have proliferated in cities and the neighborhoods that have been hit especially hard. These maps confirm that the dollar chains are concentrating in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color.
While these patterns present a grim picture, a growing number of cities, including several of those mapped here, are beginning to scrutinize dollar stores. Some are using their local authority to adopt new policies that limit dollar store density, support alternatives that provide healthy food, and strengthen their local economies.
Explore the complete series of dollar store maps below, and be sure to sign up for the monthly Hometown Advantage newsletter for our latest reporting and research.
Atlanta has enjoyed robust economic growth in recent years, but large numbers of the city’s residents have not benefited from the city’s success.
Neighborhoods with lower household incomes and a greater proportion of African American residents continue to experience poorer health and shorter life expectancies — by more than 12 years in some cases — than those with more affluent, white residents. Most of these struggling communities are located in the city’s Westside.
These disparities are a product of “major systemic issues,” explained Kathryn Lawler, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement, during a recent panel discussion on inequality and public health.
Among these systemic issues are persistent poverty and a lack of healthy food options.
Half a million residents in metropolitan Atlanta live in food deserts without access to a full-service grocery store. The independent grocers that once served these neighborhoods have fallen away amid rapid consolidation in the grocery industry. Meanwhile, the major chains have neglected the city’s low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which Dr. Jerry Shannon, a geographer at the University of Georgia, characterizes as “supermarket redlining.”
Dollar stores have moved into this void. As City Lab recently reported, dollar stores are aggressively targeting West Atlanta and the region’s most vulnerable residents.
Our maps confirm this. Most of the region’s 100 dollar stores, as shown on our map, and the 34 stores within city limits, have opened in low-income and majority-African American neighborhoods. With dollar stores amassing in such numbers and skimming off a growing share of the available food spending, the prospects for full-service grocers in West Atlanta have only become dimmer.
And dollar stores are not necessarily a better deal for Atlanta’s low-income residents. Their limited food offerings are typically sold in single-serving or small-quantity packages, which have lower price points, but are often more expensive per ounce.
Georgia has more chain dollar stores per person than all but 10 states. As of 2017, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar operated 1,467 dollar stores across the state.
Chain dollar stores have been multiplying rapidly in Dallas. The sprawling region is now home to 245 dollar stores, including 98 within the city limits. Most are concentrated in neighborhoods with a greater percentage of low-income households and people of color.
At least one community in the region is pushing back. Mesquite, an eastern suburb with modest houses and a population that is mostly Hispanic and African American, saw 15 new dollar stores built over the past decade. Determined to stop the incursion, the city council last year passed a dollar store “dispersal” ordinance.
“We want to make sure that we provide as many opportunities for grocery stores to develop,” Mesquite City Manager Cliff Keheley explained. “We want the full-service grocery store in our community. We’re not against dollar stores. We just feel a concentration, a proliferation of them, would be detrimental to the long-term development of our neighborhoods.”
Statewide, Texas has about 2,964 dollar stores across the three major brands — the largest total number of such stores in any state.
“Across Louisville, more than 120,000 people are living with food insecurity, meaning they don’t have reliable access to healthy, affordable food,” explained The Courier-Journal in a recent, in-depth report about how food insecurity affects the region and its residents. On Louisville’s northwest side, grocery store closures and food insecurity have hit the city’s low-income and African American residents particularly hard, the report notes.
Dollar stores have capitalized on this opening and cropped up across the city. Louisville has 28 dollar stores operated by the three major brands within its city limits, and a total of 83 across the metro region shown on our map.
This density of dollar stores is further imperiling the city’s remaining full-service grocers. “They have certainly had an effect on our largest independent grocer, ValuMarket,” noted Jennifer Rubenstein, director of the Louisville Independent Business Alliance.
Although there’s limited data on the impact of dollar stores in urban areas, in small towns, local grocers commonly report declines in sales of about 30 percent after a new dollar store opens nearby. That’s often enough to force them out of business.
When Louisville’s local Pic Pac supermarket closed in 2017, the store’s owner, Matt Reasor, reported that sales had declined roughly 30 percent and cited the growth of chains, including Dollar General, as a major factor. The family-owned, full-service grocery store had served the city’s West End neighborhood for over 30 years.
Not long after the store closed, a Family Dollar opened in its place. “We need something more than the same old, same old,” lamented Louisville City Councilmember Jessica Green, who believes the chain is over-saturating the city.
Statewide, Kentucky has about 820 stores operated by the three major brands. The state ranks sixth in the number of dollar stores per capita.
Compared to most other states, dollar stores have not yet reached the same level of saturation in New Jersey. As of 2017, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar operated 386 stores in the state, placing New Jersey among the ten states with the fewest number of dollar stores per person. If New Jersey caught up to the national average of dollar stores per capita, it would have more than twice its current total.
One New Jersey city where dollar stores have begun to multiply is Newark. The city claims 12 stores within its boundaries and 32 dollar stores across the region we’ve mapped. These stores largely concentrate in areas with a greater percentage of African American residents.
Given the comparatively small number of dollar stores in the city so far, Newark may have been one of the communities that Dollar General executive Todd Vasos had in mind, when, in 2016, he reported that the company had identified locations for about 13,000 new stores.
Local officials have an opportunity to get ahead of the dollar store chains’ predatory development practices.
Indeed, the city and state already know how to grow better and healthier alternatives to dollar stores. The Reinvestment Fund’s New Jersey Food Access Initiative is a program that provides flexible, low-interest loans for grocery store operators who serve communities with limited supermarket access. With assistance from this initiative, third-generation New Jersey grocer Neil Greenstein was able to open a new store in the city in 2015.
“Every community deserves to have a grocery store,” said Greenstein.
New Orleans, La.
Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and levee failures in 2005, chain dollar stores multiplied across New Orleans. They particularly targeted New Orleans East, a predominantly African American neighborhood on the city’s east side.
At the time, powerful leaders, including the city’s former mayor Mitch Landrieu, praised and encouraged these chains, signaling to dollar store developers that “the East is open for business.” Fast-tracking chain dollar store development showed little regard for how these stores would impact the city’s most vulnerable residents.
As dollar stores expanded, residents and some city leaders tried to push back. “The community is adamant that they do not want another Dollar General, another Family Dollar,” explained former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, in 2011.
As our maps reveal, though, dollar stores have continued to proliferate. Today, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar operate 38 stores within the city limits, and 102 stores across the larger region shown on our map. Many of these stores are located just a few blocks from one another.
“Regardless of ZIP code or income, residents of this city deserve access to a wide variety of business types that provide their day-to-day needs,” including stores that sell fresh produce, argues New Orleans Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer (District C). She co-sponsored a measure last year to commission a study of dollar stores and their impacts in the city.
The study, released in late 2018, concluded that the impacts of dollars stores are significant enough that the city should limit their future development. It recommends that the New Orleans City Planning Commission adopt a comprehensive, citywide zoning ordinance to restrict dollar store development throughout the city. Similar to dollar store dispersal ordinances enacted by Tulsa, Okla., and Mesquite, Texas, the proposal would bar new stores from locating within either 1 or 2 miles of an existing dollar store, depending on the neighborhood.
Statewide, Louisiana has about 971 dollar stores across the three major brands. With more than 2 stores per 10,000 people, Louisiana ranks fourth among the states with the most dollar stores per capita. (It’s behind Mississippi, West Virginia, and Alabama.)
Dollar stores are now “everywhere” and have become “more ubiquitous than Wawas,” a common regional gas station chain, reported The Philadelphia Inquirer in a story about the growth of these chains across Pennsylvania. In the last decade, the state saw a 50 percent increase in the number of dollar stores. As of 2017, Pennsylvania has 1,288 dollar stores across the three major brands.
Among the eight cities analyzed, Philadelphia has the largest number of chain dollar stores. There are 106 stores within the city limits and 178 across the region we mapped. As our map shows, neighborhoods with more low-income households and African American residents have a startling concentration of dollar stores.
Rather than slowing the spread of these stores, Philadelphia’s City Council in 2011 opened the way for more. It voted unanimously to amend the city’s zoning code to allow general merchandise stores, including dollar stores, to open in an overlay district of the city’s historic Germantown neighborhood, where they had previously been prohibited.
Local residents testified in opposition to the zoning change and saw it as “a blatant handout” to the local developer who had proposed a new Dollar Tree in the neighborhood earlier that year. State Representative Rosita Youngblood (D-PA House of Representatives, District 198) also testified against the measure, explaining at the time that having another dollar store instead of a grocery store would be “devastating” for the community.
Philadelphia’s embrace of dollar stores is especially puzzling given that Pennsylvania, more than any other state, has demonstrated a successful approach to solving food deserts and shown that local, independent grocers are the key. Over about 10 years, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative financed loans to local grocers and facilitated the opening or expansion of more than 80 food stores in underserved communities throughout the state.
In communities where these local grocery stores have opened, there’s been a documented decrease in childhood obesity.
As profiled in further detail in our feature report and Building Local Power podcast episode, the city of Tulsa has been plagued by what City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper describes as a “proliferation” of dollar stores, which are impacting residents’ access to fresh, healthy food and impeding the development of a diverse, local economy.
“When dollar stores are able to proliferate — in poor, black, and brown communities — it makes it more difficult for grocers to come and survive,” Hall-Harper explains.
Maps of dollar stores and demographics in Tulsa illustrate that dollar stores have largely side-stepped the city’s more affluent, white neighborhoods. Instead, they concentrate in areas with both a greater percentage of households living in poverty and more African American residents. Indeed, the presence of dollar stores appears to correlate with both income and race. Tulsa has 52 dollar stores within its city limits and 81 within the extent illustrated by our map.
Statewide, Oklahoma has about 644 dollar stores across the three major brands. This places Oklahoma ninth among the states with the highest number of dollar stores per capita.
As in Tulsa, dollar stores in the Washington, D.C., metro follow a specific pattern that appears to be driven as much by race as by income.
The city’s dollar stores cluster in predominantly African American neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and are even more prevalent across the border in neighboring Prince George’s County, Md, according to both our maps and recent reporting by WAMU, the city’s NPR affiliate. In these areas, full-service grocery stores are rare.
“We don’t have fresh produce in our ward,” explains D.C. City Councilmember Trayon White (Ward 8). “We have gotten second-class food, that’s why we have some of the highest health disparities in our ward.”
Despite dollar stores clearly targeting the city’s most vulnerable communities, D.C. has fewer dollar stores citywide compared to the other cities we mapped. Across the three major brands, there are six dollar stores within D.C. city limits. The density of stores increases in nearby Prince George’s County. Altogether, there are 43 dollar stores in the larger D.C. metropolitan region illustrated by our map.
With less than half the number of dollar stores per person as Oklahoma and one third of that in Louisiana, the D.C. region may be at risk for future dollar store development. Indeed, when Dollar General recently announced plans to pilot a new “urban concept” format to attract more affluent, millennial customers, it may have had cities like D.C., with its young and transient population, in mind.
That makes it all the more urgent that local leaders in both D.C. and neighboring Maryland consider policies such as formula business and dollar store dispersal ordinances to put checks on future chain dollar store development and promote a stronger local economy.
This article originally posted at ilsr.org. If you liked this post, be sure to sign up for the monthly Hometown Advantage newsletter for our latest reporting and research.
- More Cities Pass Laws to Block Dollar Store Chains — A September 2019 legislative update.
- Dollar Stores Are Targeting Struggling Urban Neighborhoods and Small Towns. One Community Is Showing How to Fight Back. — our Dec. 2018 report.
- Dollar Store Impacts Fact Sheet [PDF] — our Dec. 2018 fact sheet.
- Reining in Dollar Stores: Episode 59 of ILSR’s Building Local Power Podcast — our conversation with Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper.
- Policy Tools —
- Why Local Matters — our top resources to support strong local and community-scaled economies.