October 5, 2014 big box store
big box store
(1990’s | journalese?, businese?)
“Big box store” succeeded “superstore” (late seventies) and “megastore” (mid-eighties). The superstore was copied from the French hypermarché, where you could pick up a box of cereal, a television set, a new blender, some nice flowers for the wife, AND pay your electric bill, all in one trip to the grocery store. “Supermarket” already meant something else, and while “hypermarket” has gained some currency in the business press it has never caught on elsewhere. A megastore — the term was popularized by Virgin Records, most likely — didn’t boast the same variety of goods, but it still promised a wide selection within a narrow range. As early as 2001, a Maryland Department of Planning document listed “superstore,” “megastore,” and “big box store” as expressions that meant the same thing.
A big-box store — it seems to appear hyphenated or as two separate words about equally often — could be either a superstore or a megastore. It has to do with the size of the emporium (big) and shape (boxy). If you find that explanation too boring, maybe it referred originally to the crates from which one pulled items to place in one’s outsize, unmaneuverable shopping cart. In the classic suburban incarnation, it’s a mammoth one-story building with little in the way of decor or ambience but rich in utilitarian charm. (It pains me to report that Home Depot on W. 23rd Street in Manhattan has two stories. In the city, those boxes have to be stackable.) When the term came into vogue in the nineties, it referred at first to warehouse-type stores where one buys in bulk (Sam’s Club, Costco), and the fact that they looked like warehouses was part of the point. Home Depot took advantage of the same esthetic standards — the concrete floors and pallets sagging under bricks inspired trust in the home handyman. Best Buy or Bed Bath and Beyond had to work a little harder for their customers. Wal-Mart lies somewhere in between. Big box stores back in those days were often part of a “power center,” which could be either a mall or shopping center, only on steroids. (“Shopping center” was what we called a “strip mall” in suburban Baltimore, ca. 1975.) Today, the big box store embraces a wider field, including things like Target (which is basically a cheap department store), Pier 1, T.J. Maxx, Sports Authority (any of which might have been considered megastores in 1990). There is a move afoot to conflate the term “big box store” with “anchor tenant.” Any big, popular chain store rates the term, except perhaps a traditional department store like Macy’s or J.C. Penney. In 2006, a Chicago law defined big box stores as those “that occupy more than 90,000 square feet and are part of companies grossing more than $1 billion annually.” Merchandise and ambience no longer matter — only sheer size.
Like all forms of overgrown retail, big box stores have always had vociferous opponents, and a backlash soon formed, with the job savers lining up against the bargain hunters. The urge to find a bargain has driven American shoppers for a long time, and big box stores can certainly undersell their competition. But in modern times, there’s more to it than just finding a soul-satisfying discount. Shopping has become in itself an act of worship. I remember the first time I walked into a Bed Bath and Beyond and realized that such emporia are our cathedrals. Huge, high-ceilinged buildings filled with row upon row and shelf upon shelf of gleaming goods. The opulence, the vastness, the hush, the concentrations of shoppers comparing similar bedsheets, say, each creating a catechism out of cotton and microfiber, queen-size and king-size, 300 and 600 thread count. Mammon was the first American idol.
Not to get all nostalgic, but when I was a boy, you could still go to the dime store, which had similar stock to that of dollar stores nowadays (or the fussily named ninety-nine cent stores). Yes, we had big supermarkets, but they didn’t try to multitask. We didn’t have as many discount stores then, except in the form of outlet stores — factory seconds! We didn’t need them. Enough places stocked enough cheap merchandise that there was no need for special stores set aside for non-millionaires. Everything about retail has skewed higher since the seventies, even at the low end.