Is the American public reaching its saturation point with big box stores? A new opinion poll published by the Santa Rosa, California Press Democrat newspaper suggests that most people don’t want more, or bigger, superstores. The newspaper reports this week that its readers “are generally opposed to many of the pending big-box plans in Sonoma County, including a proposed Lowe’s in Santa Rosa and a Wal-Mart expansion in Rohnert Park.” Readers tended to favor locally-owned stores instead of the national chains. For example, an overwhelming 80% of those who responded to the newspaper survey said that if they had to make a choice between a locally-owned home improvement store, or a Lowe’s chain store, the locally-owned store was preferred. “As a community, we absolutely need to support our locally owned businesses” wrote a couple in Santa Rosa. Some readers said they actually drive across town to shop at local stores, going past the big box chains, like Home Depot. 63% of those who responded to the two day survey said they oppose plans by Lowe’s to build a 155,000 s.f. in Santa Rosa. That project is coming before the Santa Rosa City Council this coming week. “Another huge store on Santa Rosa Avenue is unnecessary,” said one resident. “That area is over-saturated as it is.” 54% of readers oppose a plan by Wal-Mart to expand its Rohnert Park, California store by 35,000 s.f., and another 12% were unsure. Only 34% supported Wal-Mart’s expansion plans. “Please, we do not need an expanded Wal-Mart in Rohnert Park,” wrote a Rohnert Park resident. “I never go to that store.” 68% of those who took the survey said they were be willing to pay more for an item if they knew they were supporting a locally owned business. 56% said they “frequently” or “always” made their shopping decisions based on whether the store is locally owned. “We’ve found that when we make big purchases, often the local dealer can come pretty close (in price.) And we would much rather do business with locally owned store,” wrote one resident of Petaluma, California. “For every dollar spent, only 15 cents are recirculated locally when a purchase is made at a national chain,” wrote a resident of Windsor, California. “Forty-five cents are recirculated when that same dollar is spent at a locally owned chain. National chains rob us of economic sustainability.”
Wal-Mart has directed its future growth plans to converting its existing discount stores into larger supercenters, or, more recently, doing “in-box conversions,” in which the store’s interior is shifted from a discount store to a supercenter — without adding a single square foot in size. This latter plan, Wal-Mart says, is cheaper, and more sustainable environmentally. It is not clear why it took Wal-Mart more than twenty years of superstore construction to realize they could convert their stores more easily than fighting with communities over expansions, but the Santa Rosa Press Democrat poll suggests that many residents in the North Bay area have had their fill with larger and larger national chains, and that further development of this format will not be well received. The fact is, most large big box projects today are being opposed by local residents, and this opposition can be very costly to developers and chain stores. What might be a three month permitting process can devolve into a three year battle, if citizens decide to challenge the big developers. Often local residents lack the expertise and money to level the playing field, but many big box plans end up with a lawsuit, not a ribbon cutting. Readers who wish to review the comments submitted to the Santa Rosa Press Democract poll can go to http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/survey-intro.zgi?p=WEB2296KZAAHTU to see comments submitted to the paper.