I did some May Two Four shopping last month. My wife and I are doing some fixes in the kitchen and we also have a lot of gardening and landscaping to attend to which required visits to Box Store Land.
I hadn’t been to Orleans, east of Ottawa, in something like 15 years. Last time through the Place d’Orleans shopping mall was just finishing up on it’s 4th or 5th expansion. Ah the 90s’…Back in the day the ever-expanding shopping mall was all the retail rage… But even then a new trend was slowly eating away at prime farmland on the peripheries of town: The Box Store Mall.
I believe we have the Swedes to blame for this phenomenon as IKEA was around way back when I was just a kid. They were the first to capitalize on the idea that if you kept the warehouse on a cheap peace of commercial property on the outskirts of town and simply opened the doors to the public you saved tons of money on rent and other trivial things like making the interior of your store pretty and maintaining a window front. Plus you could use all that extra farmland for the few thousand parking spots required by such a preposterously big store that is nowhere near public transit. As the idea spread genius real estate developers figured out that you could group two, three, heck why not 20 stores and spread them over a several hundred Acres. Once out there with their cars shoppers will think nothing of driving from one side of the outsized lot to the other as they move from store to store. Boy did they get it right.
Even though they have been around for a solid 15 years I am still overwhelmed by just HOW BIG these big box stores really are. And then I try and think of all the box stores that I’ve BEEN to in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Hamilton.. and then I extrapolate that on a continental level… and then I try to imagine in my mind’s eye the contents of everyone of these stores, worldwide, in one place. And I shutter. And don’t even get me started on packaging or the fact that all these products spread to the far corners of the World by sea and then by truck and rail… all so my wife and I can buy a decent outdoor table lamp for $25 at WalMart…
I got the greatest shock while pumping gas on the edge of one of these Box Store Mall Parking Lots. In front of me across the expanse of asphalt was the aforementioned Wal * Mart complete with it’s Texan Star separating the Wal and Mart, suspended up there in gigantic letters so as to be seen from 300 metres away as you pass by on the four lane express road to nowhere. Across the lot in the other direction: A Pet Smart. And then a Home Sense and then a Sony store… Their oversized letters and signs posted to the exterior of giant monolithic boxes. And a quick look around revealed the only places to eat in these giant Parking Box Mall Lots: Boston Pizza, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Tim Hortons or some other generic concept road house such as Casey’s or Jack Astor’s. And this is the case regardless of where you are anywhere in North America. It is the same in Rutland Vermont. It is the same in Cornwall Ontario. It is the same in Chicoutimi Quebec. The brands change somewhat from place to place but the overall feeling of uniformity and lack of civil engagement by these beacons of consumer culture is truly disheartening if not downright disorienting. And then it struck me: This is what Communism was supposed to be: Lack of choice, central planning and urban blight.
While I generally agree with the benefits of trade between countries based on the principles of comparative advantage, things have gone too far. We have allowed Corporations to destroy our communities in the name of cheaper goods. And while it is great to be able to fit one’s house with a bounty of reasonably well-made stuff at great prices….Is it worth the cost? And here’s the rub. I would like to be able to scream out with a resounding NO! But then I’m not so sure….