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big box retail



What characterizes "big box" retail?
¡¤ Typically occupy more than 50,000 square feet, with typical ranges between 90,000-200,000 sq. ft.
¡¤ Derive their profits from high sales volumes rather than price mark up
¡¤ Large windowless, rectangular single-story buildings
¡¤ Standardized facades
¡¤ Reliance on auto-borne shoppers
¡¤ Acres of parking
¡¤ No-frills site development that eschews any community or pedestrian amenities.
¡¤ Seem to be everywhere and unique to no place, be it a rural town or urban neighborhood
¡¤ Varying market niches; categories include discount departmetn stores, category killers and warehouse clubs. IKEA seems to be a combination of the first two classifications.
¡¤ Profound planning impacts on the character of a community.

What benefits are achieved by "big box" developments?
¡¤ Offer low prices and great convenience for an increasingly time-deprived society
¡¤ Localities economies from sales tax revenues to finance local services

What are the relevant issues and concerns ?
¡¤ Big vs. small businesses, i.e. "category killers"
¡¤ Long Term development impacts
¡¤ Quality and Image - quality begets quality
¡¤ Future marketability - When/if the store is closed, will a standardized big-box shell and parking lot be a long-term eyesore in the neighborhood?

Based on past big box experience, what built aspects can we consider in alternative planning approaches?
¡¤ Architectural character of the building;
¡¤ Color and material of the primary structure;
¡¤ Relationship to the surrounding community, including civic amenities;
¡¤ Pedestrian flows;
¡¤ Parking.

Through good planning practice, what are achieveable "big box" goals?
¡¤ Proposing a flexible strategy in which IKEA does not dictate a design indifferent to local identity and interests; Recognize New Rochelle as a unique place by reflecting on its physical character and adding to it in appropriate ways.
¡¤ Avoid perpetuating a lower image; you're not going to be able to bring other quality businesses that will improve the economy

The terms "value retailers", "superstore," "big box retailer," and "category killer" are used interchangeably. For these retailers, size does matter. The retail model depends on high-volume rather than price markups. To do a profitable volume, they must occupy large amounts of space. "Typically, they range in size from 90,000 to 200,000 square feet, are located as often as possible near highway interchanges or exits, use the same windowless box store design with several acres of a single-floor layout, and require vast surface parking." (Grantz, Cities Back from the Edge, p. 192.) "The definition of "big" is, however, relative, and must be related to the product category in question. For the supermarket/grocery sector, a big-box superstore normally must be in the 50,000 to 100,000 square foot range. For warehouse operations, such as PriceCostco, big boxes normally contain 120,000 square feet. In contrast, for book retailers, 25,000 to 50,000 square feet would qualify as a big-box operation. For other specialty retail categories, for example, eye glasses, a 5,000 square-foot store would qualify as a "big box." The key point is that "big-box, category-killer" stores are several times the size of a traditional outlet in their category." (Center for Study of Commercial Activity)

Dean Schwanke of Urban Land magazine categorizes these retailers (generally referred to collectively as "superstores") into three subgroups: discount department stores, category killers, and warehouse clubs. Discount department stores sell department store merchandise at low prices. Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target are examples of this type. Category killers are large specialty (niche) retailers that buy and sell in huge volumes at low prices. Prices are further reduced by eliminating middleman charges and dealing directly with product manufacturers. Examples include Toys R Us, Circuit City, Crown Books, Home Depot, Sports Authority, and Builders Square. Warehouse clubs are membership shopping clubs that offer a variety of goods, often including groceries, electronics, clothing, hardware, and more, at wholesale prices. Unlike didscount department stores, which may sell as many as 60,000 distinct items, warehouse clubs limit their range to 3,000 to 5,000 items. Sam's Club, Price-Costco, and Pace dominate this industry. Their stores range in size from 104,000 to 170,000 square feet and serve markets up to 250,000 people. Conglomerations of superstores in 250,000 to 750,000 square foot centers are called "power centers."

IKEA seems to be a mix between a discount department store (household goods) and a category killer (furniture).

In Cities Back from the Edge, Grantz identifies some of the basic operation procedures of superstores. They have, she says, acquired their affectionate nickname "category killers" because "[t]hey don't mean to compete with existing businesses. They mean to kill them off and monopolize the market." (p. 172) Once the competition is demolished, the store shifts the product mix, increases prices, and reduces the staff. She presents the following retail strategy scenario:

"Attack" teams are put together for the first few months of operation of a new store. If a new store is meant to operate with 100 employees, the "attack" team will contain 150 and will include friendly, helpful salespeople for the first several months. The first-time shopper at the store has a positive experience and saves money¡¦at first. Customers are won early. Local stores close. Some try to reposition themselves to fit a new market. "Adjust," they are admonished. They try, without access to Wall Street funding or helpful politicians. Some succeed. They change their product mix, emphasize service and specialty goods. Many fail. Some¡¦maybe¡¦remain in business, but barely. (p. 172-3)

And as the category killer's smaller competition disappears, the helpful employees also disappear and prices begin to rise. It is important to note that these disposable employees are included in the initial job creation estimates, so the number of long-term jobs is often significantly less than the developers would have the public and its officials believe.

"Variable pricing" is another weapon wielded by the category killers. Such "loss leaders" give the impression of wider price savings. But the car bound nature of such retailers makes comparison-shopping difficult and inconvenient, leaving customers at the store manager's mercy.

Another concern associated with big box development relates to blight and redevelopment projects. "City governments lost much of their property tax revenue in 1978, when voters enacted Proposition 13, and took another big hit in the early 1990s, when the state grabbed billions of dollars in property taxes from local governments to balance its own recession-stricken budget. Increasingly, cities turned to the local share of the sales tax as a source of income and began using redevelopment aggressively to attract and subsidize tax-producing projects, such as "big box" retailers, auto malls and shopping centers." (Walters, Cities Playing a Blight Game.) Cities will declare an area to be "blighted" and slate the area for redevelopment. Many state redevelopment laws require, however, that funds generated from such projects be used for low- and moderate-income housing--something that cities are reluctant to do. The response has been to enact tougher redevelopment laws, but Dan Walters points out that the underlying causes of the abuse of redevelopment are a series of political decisions that have "distorted local government finances...and we should do something about that, as well."

Labor unions are becoming opposed to big box development due to the fact that the employees of such developments are usually not uionized. Unions are especially concerned about the grocery market because stores such as Target, Wal-mart and Kmart are beginning to sell groceries. Unions are attempting to use land use ordinances to control this problem. They want the ordinances to restrict these businesses.

There are also concerns surrounding traffic and roads. The increased traffic leads to more air pollution in an area. The increased traffic volume also leads to higher taxes in order to maintain the roads. The reliance on the automobile to get to these stores also promotes an anti-community feelings--people are less likely to interact with each other in big box setting than they are in pedestrian-oriented environments.

It is important to note that the benefits of big box retailing, and the reasons they continue to be devleped, is that they offer low prices and "great conveniences for the an increasingly time-deprived society." (Uhlenhuth, "The Bigger the Better). These stores also offer large sales tax revenues to local governments in order to finance local services. In order to find a compromise, some cities are now trying to impose design guidelines on big box development and to better incorporate the big box stores into their communities by, for example, making them more pedestrian-friendly. (Duerksen, Site Planning for Large Scale Retail Stores).

Addressing the Character of a Community:
Some cities and towns are worried about the economic impact of big-box retailers on existing downtown merchants or the sprawl-inducing impacts on character of such developments. The critical question for these communities is on what terms should the big boxes be welcomed?

Some communities answered this question by adopting a higher level of architectural treatment and regulations to ensure that the superstores relate better to their environs and neighbors. Many already have regulations addressing signage and landscaping. I expect this "first-line of defense" is what is mitigated in the DEIS. Trouble is many of the issues addressed are only first steps in an effective, long-term program.

Chris Duerksen and Robert Blanchard's APA Report on Belling The Box: Planning For Large-Scale Retail Stores is a great source on architectural character, color, relationship to Surrounding community/ Streets, Pedistrian Flows, Parking lots, and past projects. In it they suggest a number of detailed alternative considered for Fort Collins, Colorado yet which may be tweeked and applied to various sites. A sampling of some suggestions are:

(1) Forbid "uninterrupted length of any facade" in excess of 100 horizontal feet. Facades greater than 100 feet in length must incorporate recesses and projections along at least 20% of the length of the facade. Windows, awnings, and arcades must total at least 60% of the facade length abutting a public street. (2) Require that smaller retail stores that are part of a larger principal building have display windows and separate outside entrances (3) All facades of a building that are visible from adjoining properties and/or public streets should contribute to the pleasing scale features of the building and encourage community integration by featuring characteristics similar to a front facade (4) no more than 50% of the off-street parking area for the entire property shall be located between the front facade of the principal building and the primary abutting street." (

Beaumont, Constance E. How Superstore Sprawl Can Harm Communities. National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1994. ( )

Grantz, Roberta Brandes, with Norman Mintz. Cities Back from the Edge. New York: Preservation Press, 1998.

Walters, Dan. "Cities Playing a Blight Game," September 7, 2000.

Fulton, William. "Big-Box Regulations Aim to Solve
Social Issues,"...

Bulkeley, William M. "'Category Killers' Look Vulnerable, Not Deadly," The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2000.

Duerksen, Christopher. "Site Planning for Large-Scale Retail Stores," PASMemo (APA), April 1996, pg. 1-4. (

Uhlenhuth, Karen. "The Bigger the Better," ... Sunday, December 4, 1994.