How Dollar Stores Became Magnets for Crime and Killing Pt II

“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”

The number of incidents can be explained in part by the stores’ ubiquity: There are now more than 16,000 Dollar Generals and nearly 8,000 Family Dollars in the United States, a 50% increase in the past decade. (By comparison, Walmart has about 4,700 stores in the U.S.) The stores are often in high-crime neighborhoods, where there simply aren’t many other businesses for criminals to target. Routine gun violence has fallen sharply in prosperous cities around the country, but it has remained stubbornly high in many of the cities and towns where these stores predominate. The glowing signs of the discount chains have become indicators of neglect, markers of a geography of the places that the country has written off.

But these factors are not sufficient to explain the trend. The chains’ owners have done little to maintain order in the stores, which tend to be thinly staffed and exist in a state of physical disarray. In the 1970s, criminologists such as Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson argued that rising crime could be partly explained by changes in the social environment that lowered the risk of getting caught. That theory gained increasing acceptance in the decades that followed. “The likelihood of a crime occurring depends on three elements: a motivated offender, a vulnerable victim, and the absence of a capable guardian,” the sociologist Patrick Sharkey wrote, in “Uneasy Peace,” from 2018.

Another way of putting this is that crime is not inevitable. Robberies and killings that have taken place at dollar store chains would not have necessarily happened elsewhere. “The idea that crime is sort of a whack-a-mole game, that if you just press here it’ll move over here,” is wrong, Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told me. Making it harder to commit a crime doesn’t just push crime elsewhere; it reduces it. “Crime is opportunistic,” he said. “If there’s no opportunity, there’s no crime.”

James Luther Turner left school in 1902, when he was 11. His father had died in a wrestling accident, and Turner had to run his family’s farm, in Macon County, Tennessee. He was successful and entrepreneurial, and when he was 24 other farmers asked him to manage the local co-op; he started a bridle shop behind the store. Eventually, he took a job working for a Nashville dry goods wholesaler, hawking samples across southern Kentucky and middle Tennessee. In 1929, at the onset of the Depression, he opened a store in Scottsville, a small town in Kentucky. He bought up failed retailers’ stock, which he either liquidated, sold to other store owners or took back to his own shop, Turner’s Bargain Store. “He also knew that where there was failure, there was opportunity,” his grandson Cal Turner Jr. wrote in a memoir, called “My Father’s Business,” published in 2018.

In 1939, James Luther Turner’s only child, Hurley Calister Turner, known as Cal Sr., bought a building in Scottsville to serve as the warehouse for a new wholesale business, J. L. Turner and Son. Soon, he was buying so much discount merchandise that he had trouble finding stores to take it, so he and his ­father started a chain of stores in partnership with local managers. At first, Cal Sr. later said, the plan was “selling the good stuff to the rich folks, but we were late getting into retailing.” He concluded, “We had to sell the cheap stuff to the poor folks.” Cal Sr. had high standards: He called all his store managers on Saturday nights and made frequent rounds in person. “He wanted a store to be clean and well displayed,” Cal Jr. wrote. He started working for the company when he was about 13, sweeping the warehouse for 25 cents an hour.

By 1955, the Turners had three dozen stores across Kentucky and Tennessee. Cal Sr. noticed that crowds of shoppers came to department stores in larger cities when they held “dollar days,” selling off excess merchandise cheaply. On June 1 of that year, the company converted a store in Springfield, Kentucky, into one called Dollar General. The store was a sensation, as was a second one, in Memphis, which in 10 months did more than a million dollars in sales. Soon, all J. L. Turner and Son stores were renamed Dollar General, with a new slogan above the window: “Every Day Is Dollar Day.” Signs outside read “Nothing Over $1.”

At first, the Turners didn’t have to radically change their business model. They bought inventory, including irregular items and closeouts, very cheap and sold it for a little more. When a friend’s textile company had an excess of pink corduroy, Cal Sr. had the friend make men’s pants, which he sold for a dollar a pair. He bought a truckload of wet socks in Nashville and had workers sort and hang them around the Scottsville warehouse. When bell-bottoms went out of fashion, he turned them into cutoff shorts. Once, at the end of the Christmas season, he bought 35,000 fruitcakes; he sold them all a year later.

Cal Sr. sought out cheap real estate. “We don’t have to have great locations,” he said. “With our merchandise and our prices, we just need some kind of building around us.” And he paid poorly: Wages were to be kept at a maximum of 5% of a store’s gross sales, which, Cal Jr. acknowledged, “placed us at the bottom of a low-paying in­dustry.” A store typically had only two employees — and, if business was slow, it got by with just one at a time. When a bookkeeper invited two colleagues to lunch with a union organizer, Cal Sr. had her fired. After the Teamsters tried to organize the company’s truck ­drivers, the company outsourced its transportation to a contractor and hired a slew of armed guards to escort the new drivers past picketers.

Sales nearly doubled between 1963 and 1968, and the Turners took the chain public. By 1972, they had 500 stores, and, a few years later, around the time that Cal Sr. passed the reins to Cal Jr., they started buying up other chains, also in small towns, extending the company far from its upland-South base. A competing chain, Family Dollar, started by Leon Levine in Charlotte in 1959, focused mostly on low-income urban areas. By 1974, Levine had 200 stores; he took his company public five years later.

As the two chains have grown, expanding to offer many goods for more than a dollar, the urban-rural distinction between them has diminished. Today, it is not uncommon to find both stores on the same small-town main street or a few blocks apart in a distressed urban neighborhood. (Dollar Tree, which bought Family Dollar in 2015 and has maintained both brands, keeps prices closer to a dollar with a more limited selection — wrapping paper, party supplies — sold to a more middle-class clientele. Unlike Dollar General and Family Dollar, Dollar Tree’s stores tend to be in suburban locations.) As Amazon and its e-commerce rivals have devastated brick-and-mortar shopping, the two chains represent just about the only branch of physical retail that is still growing in America. Even Walmart, often viewed as the bane of small-town retailers, has been consolidating. Last year, it closed about 20 stores, leaving some communities even more dependent on the two chains. In 2019, discount chains accounted for about half of all new retail store openings. Dollar General alone opened nearly 1,000 stores.

The chains’ executives are candid about what is driving their growth: widening income inequality and the decline of many city neighborhoods and entire swaths of the country. Todd Vasos, the CEO of Dollar General, told The Wall Street Journal in 2017, “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer.”

A Dollar General on the west side of Dayton where the reporter encountered Jimmy Donald shopping with his mom.

Because dollar stores are heavily concentrated in poor towns and neighborhoods, many middle- and upper-middle-class consumers are unaware of their ubiquity — or of the frequency of armed robberies and shootings. In 2017, the manager of a Dollar General in Baltimore, where I live, was shot and killed as he was closing up. But I discovered the pervasiveness of the problem while reporting elsewhere. In Dayton, Ohio, I got to know Jimmy Donald, who was working for a heating and air conditioning contractor while trying to start an organization to help ex-felons and others with troubled backgrounds, a category that included himself. Donald, who is 38, served in the Marines in Iraq. He then spent four years in prison, after being involved in the beating death of a man outside a Michigan bar, in 2004. He lived on the west side of Dayton, which is predominantly Black; as the area has lost several grocery stores, the dollar store chains have proliferated.

This correlation is not a coincidence, according to a 2018 research brief by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for small businesses. The stores undercut traditional grocery stores by having few employees, often only three per store, and paying them little. “While dollar stores sometimes fill a need in cash-strapped communities, growing evidence suggests these stores are not merely a byproduct of economic distress,” the brief reported. “They’re a cause of it.”

  • Selling low class merchandise to poor urban area residents is their claim to success and exploitation of minority residents who cannot afford to venture outside their environment. Continue to Part 3

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