How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing

“Family Dollar & other low cost stores that have taken the place of local community owned stores have come a place for crime in urban and minority areas”

When Jolanda Woods was growing up in North St. Louis, in the 1970s and early ’80s, she and her friends would take the bus to the stores downtown, on 14th Street, or on Cherokee Street, on the South Side, or out to the River Roads Mall, in the inner suburb of Jennings. “This was a very merchant city,” Woods, who is 54, told me. There were plenty of places to shop in her neighborhood, too, even as North St. Louis, a mostly Black and working-class part of town, fell into economic decline. There was Perlmutter’s department store, where women bought pantyhose in bulk, Payless shoes, True Value hardware and Schnucks grocery store.

Almost all these stores have disappeared. As St. Louis’ population has dropped from 850,000, in the 1950s, to a little more than 300,000, owing to suburban flight and deindustrialization, its downtown has withered. The River Roads Mall closed in 1995. North St. Louis is a devastated expanse of vacant lots and crumbling late-19th-century brick buildings, their disrepair all the more dramatic for the opulence of their design. “This neighborhood has gone down,” Woods said. “Oh, my God, these houses.”

A new form of retail has moved into the void. The discount chains Family Dollar and Dollar General now have nearly 40 stores in St. Louis and its immediate suburbs, about 15 of them in North St. Louis. This is where the people who remain in the neighborhood can buy detergent and toys and pet food and underwear and motor oil and flashlights and strollers and mops and drain cleaner and glassware and wind chimes and rakes and shoes and balloons and bath towels and condoms and winter coats.

The stores have some nonperishable and frozen foods, too, for people who can’t travel to the few discount grocery stores left in the area. Rudimentary provisions like these allowed the stores to remain open as “essential” businesses during the coronavirus shutdowns. “These stores are our little Walmarts, our little Targets,” Darryl Gray, a local minister and civil rights activist, told me. “It’s the stuff you won’t get at a grocery store, that you get at a Walmart — but we don’t have one.”

Three years ago, Woods’ husband, Robert, who was 42, began working at a Dollar General on Grand Boulevard, across from an abandoned grocery store. He and Jolanda had separated, but they stayed in touch over the years as Robert overcame a crack-­cocaine addiction, got a job at the Salvation Army, was ordained as a minister and became an informal counselor to other men battling addiction. Dollar General paid a bit more than the Salvation Army, but he expressed anxiety about security problems at the store. Shoplifting was common, and occasionally there were even armed robberies. The store lacked a security guard, and it typically had only a couple of clerks on hand.

On Nov. 1, 2018, Woods went to work on his day off, to fill in for an absent co-worker. Footage from a security camera shows a man entering the store just after 1 p.m., wearing a blue sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over a red cap, and holding a silver gun.

He fired down the center aisle, hitting Woods in the back of the head. Then he pointed the gun at the cash register, before seeming to panic. He ran out of the store empty-handed. An ambulance arrived, but Woods was no longer breathing. After his body was removed, Dollar General remained open for several hours, before closing amid protests from local residents.

Woods’ murder was one of three homicides in six months at the two discount chains in the St. Louis area. On June 13, a man and a woman started arguing in a car in the parking lot of a Family Dollar on West Florissant Avenue, just outside the city line; he shot her once in the head, killing her. Less than a month after Woods’ death, a 65-year-old woman was shopping at the Family Dollar on St. Charles Rock Road when a seemingly mentally ill 34-year-old woman grabbed steak knives from a shelf in the store and stabbed her to death.

The Gun Violence Archive, a website that uses local news reports and law enforcement sources to tally crimes involving firearms, lists more than 200 violent incidents involving guns at Family Dollar or Dollar General stores since the start of 2017, nearly 50 of which resulted in deaths. The incidents include carjackings in the parking lot, drug deals gone bad and altercations inside stores. But a large number involve armed robberies in which workers or customers have been shot. Since the beginning of 2017, employees have been wounded in shootings or pistol-whippings in at least 31 robberies; in at least seven other incidents, employees have been killed. The violence has not let up in recent months, when requirements for customers to wear masks have made it harder for clerks to detect shoppers who are bent on robbery. In early May, a worker at a Family Dollar in Flint, Michigan, was fatally shot after refusing entry to a customer without a mask.

  • Putting these stores in high crime areas seems like a plan where they can charge more than Walmart but use the symbol of a dollar to disguise the higher cost to these customers who can least afford travel to walmart where their dollar’s reap higher benefits. Continue to read part II and III for more details.

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