Monday, July 15, 2013

Attention, Big Box Shoppers

Last night, on the way home from Jazzin' at the Shedd. You haven't seen Marine wildlife until you've seen it at dusk, buzzed, listening to Rick James covers.

So I read this article in Slate.com about Wal-Mart's battle to open six new stores in Washington D.C. (For what seems like an update about this matter in DC, read this article in the NY Times.)I remember when Wal-Mart first showed up in the Southern Ohio suburb I grew up in. I thought it was amazing, a marvel: a store that sold Popsicles, hot dogs and buns, hunting rifles, Capri pants, board games and furniture all under the same roof. I couldn't believe it. My parents and I shopped there, not weekly or even regularly, but with some degree of frequency. Then, a year later a Target opened up across the street, right next door to a Best Buy. Goodbye Wal-Mart, Hello, Red Bulls Eye. I was smitten, and I've been a loyal customer ever since.

But I don't like big-box stores. Really. I don't like the idea that I could fall in love with a garment and guarantee that there are a million other women out there who fell in love with it too, and who bought it and will look just like me, because there's only one left in my size. I don't like how seductive Target often feels: I walk in looking to buy disinfecting wipes and paper towels and come out with 40 bucks in jewelry and accessories--of course, that's just as much about my lack of self-control as it is about the store's layout and marketing. (But I know there's some sneaky ish going on there, still...)When I learned a little bit about how badly big box stores treat their employees, I really disliked them, and ditto for their farming and agriculture practices. Yech.

But I still shop at Target. I'm a hypocrite. Absolutely.

I'd love to say that Wal-Mart is a different story than Target, that Target, with its young, polished advertising and contemporary vibe is different from Wal-Mart, and that's why I feel free to shop at Target and not Wal-Mart. I could even make it political, and say that Wal-Mart is definitely pandering to red-state, right-to-life, you'll-take-my-guns-outta-my-white-Republican-cold-dead-hands voters.

But it's not true. They're both big-box stores, with employment and contract practices that are questionable at best and downright inhuman at worst. Somehow, Wal-Mart occupies a space in my brain of all bad American consumerism. It was a big deal to me when Chicago was considering whether or not to allow Wal-Mart to open stores in city limits. (Although, it can't be a surprise to anyone that the city gave them permission to build, right? At the end of the day, revenue is king, especially in a city like Chicago.) When I discovered that Pearl, a fantastic arts and crafts store in Chicago's River North neighborhood, had been transformed into a Wal-Mart Express, I was crestfallen.

But Target is everywhere. In my first neighborhood in Chicago, there was a Target nearby, and I was there monthly. When my husband and I lived in Rogers Park, we were at Target frequently running errands. It was as if I just chose to turn off the part of my brain that considered how other people were being treated so that I could buy scarves and bathmats on the cheap.

Yesterday I was driving home and discovered that another Target was being build on Division st., in one of those neighborhoods that's in a sort of border spot--near Old Town, east of Ukrainian Village, known to locals as Cabrini Green, after the housing development that used to be there. At this point, though, it seems like Targets are popping up like mushrooms. There are two downtown--or precisely one in the Loop, one in the South Loop--one in West Town on Jackson, one in Uptown, one in Lincoln Park, one in Avondale, Rogers Park, Archer Heights, Chatham, Bedford Park AND Morgan Park. That's eleven. Eleven Target stores within city limits. Not including the Target that's in development.

Who am I to say that's too many Target stores? I'm only a citizen of the city, someone who cares about Chicago, and about commerce here, who wants small and mid-level stores to have as much chance of success as big box stores. That's not sarcasm you're hearing. I get that I'm only one consumer, and that while I'm not powerless, as only one, my power's limited. But I try to purchase consciously. I like shopping at mom-and-pop places, and I do. I buy local, I frequent farmer's markets. But sometimes nothing but that damn big box store will suffice.

So what do I do? I don't think I'll stop shopping at Target. Give me a petition to sign for better treatment, and I'll sign it. But I haven't hit the point where I'm willing to spend my money elsewhere yet. Still, I'd love it if in five years, Target wasn't as overrun in this city as Starbucks is. Something about big box stores and technology, about Amazon and Google glasses... I fear our world is becoming too accommodating, and I'm not sure that's only a good thing.

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