Don't Cry For Mom And Pop

Shoppers walk towards the entrance of Wal-Mart in San Antonio, Thursday afternoon, Oct. 23, 2003. Nearly three dozen undocumented workers were arrested early Thursday in federal raids on Wal-Mart stores around Texas, according to immigration officials. The Houston area yielded 13 of the arrests, while another 11 occurred in the Dallas area and nine more in San Antonio.
This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
"Those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables," explained civil-rights leader turned Wal-Mart shill Andrew Young, telling the Los Angeles Sentinel why black people shouldn't care if the superstore drives mom-and-pop retail firms out of business. "And they sold us out and moved to Florida. I think they've ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans, and now it's Arabs. Very few black people own these stores."

Naturally enough, he got himself fired for his trouble. Nobody needs a spokesman who generates bad press for himself, and implying that a shady cabal of Jewish-Korean scam artists causes African-American poverty is a good way to get yourself bad press. What's more, nobody's getting ripped off at these stores, per se — it's a market exchange.

But if you've ever lived in an even vaguely working-class urban neighborhood, you'll recognize that beneath the ugly racial demagoguery, Young was hitting on an inescapable truth: Mom and pop may be admirable, hard-working, decent people, but their store probably sucks. This combination of friendly, neighborhood feel and fundamental suckiness was nicely encapsulated last time I tried to visit my local mom-and-pop outlet to buy some milk. The guy behind the counter (as per Young's somewhat off-base stereotype, a non-Arab Muslim) helpfully warned me not to — it had all gone bad.

Nice guys, crappy store. It was the same dynamic in my old neighborhood, the first I lived in when I moved to D.C. The proprietors of the local shop, Koreans, had various nuggets of helpful advice about the neighborhood to offer a newcomer with time for a chat — advice including, "you don't want to eat those sandwiches."

There's a reason, after all, that mom and pop are so perpetually under threat of being driven out of business by large retail chains — mom and pop sell sub-standard goods for somewhat premium prices. Not because they're bad people, but because they're stuck with an intrinsically difficult business model. Lacking substantial economies of scale, mom and pop can't beat the big boys on price. So they take advantage of convenience. They are, metaphorically speaking, everywhere — their stores dot a city's landscape like oases in the urban retail desert. And if you don't own a car, sooner or later you'll find yourself in need of something or other and lacking the time or energy to make it to a far-off supermarket. You'll find yourself overpaying for fairly crappy wares. Not, again, because mom and pop hate you — it's just the only business model that works for them.

This is not to say that Young and others on the Wal-Mart payroll are right, and that we should be blithely unconcerned about working conditions at big-box retailers. It is, however, to say that this is a multifaceted issue. Big-box retail is a good thing; people shop there because it's better. What's more, it's not as if mom and pop are offering super-high wages and generous benefits, either. America — urban America in particular — needs both better wages and more retail opportunities. At a minimum, we need regulations that actually lead to people getting better jobs, not just ones that drive chain stores out of business and leave us all to the tender mercies of mom and pop. I worry, though, that a lot of progressive-sponsored measures, like the recent Chicago big-box crackdown, cast liberals as useful-idiot pawns in Small Retail's war on Big Retail without advancing the interests of workers or consumers in a significant way.

There's good reason to think that the minimum wage should be higher, and that working people should all be entitled to more generous health benefits. There's a respectable case that the latter should be financed in part by employers. But there's no good reason to implement these mandates in a discriminatory manner, holding big stores to different standards than small ones. Universal standards hold out the hope of improving working conditions across the board. Discriminatory ones are likely either to be too modest to make a serious difference or else to simply drive large retailers out of the areas in which they're applied in favor of smaller business that, subjected to-less stringent standards, are even worse for workers.

It's true that mom-and-pop corner stores are harder to demonize than giant corporations with millionaire CEOs. Immigrant entrepreneurs seem admirable in a way that Wal-Mart executives don't. But it's more important to get the policy right than to indulge in sentimentalism. People working long retail hours for low pay deserve our sympathy and our help no matter where they work. There's no need to cry for mom and pop.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved