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Road subsidies for Walmart

Orson Scott Card on why we need to become a pedestrian culture:

1. Oil dependence funds our enemies.

2. We waste huge amounts of time driving.

3. Cars kill 40,000 Americans a year; drive less, save lives.

4. Car ownership is a crushing tax on the poor.

5. Our oil supply will run out someday.

6. Parking lots have paved our landscapes.

7. It’s not like we need the air pollution.

8. The exercise of walking or biking makes us healthier.

He writes about the death of corner supermarkets, a problem I am acutely sensitive to.

The trouble is, with cars ruling our lives, the giant supergroceries make us drive farther and farther because they offer a better selection at a competitive price. Nobody wants to return to the tiny corner grocery.

We don’t have to. We already have all the pieces in place for a new retail model that will affect, not just grocery stores, but most retail outlets.

Computers make it possible.

At the moment, grocery stores are doing almost nothing with the data they collect using their frequent shopper cards. They know which stores we shop at and what we buy. But they still don’t use that information to tailor their grocery stores to fit the neighborhood and the shoppers.

Idiotically, they still make decisions about what to stock based on the big numbers, as if they were still doing their figures on paper with quill pens. They could develop just-enough stocking practices that would allow small neighborhood stores to stock only what they actually sell to regular customers, plus a little more of the most popular items for walk-in trade.

They could make special-ordering quick and easy, using the internet, so that customers can get extra quantities for special occasions. The profitable corner grocery is easily within our reach.

In fact, we could have grocery stores every few blocks — competing on quality of tailored service as well as price and selection. Those regular-customer cards could become memberships or subscriptions that bring the privilege of having the things you buy regularly always in stock for you.

Regular customers could easily be rewarded for letting the store know when they’ll be out of town so they won’t be making their regular purchases. They would come to think of it as their grocery store, with far higher loyalty.

Grocery stores are the foundation of neighborhood retail. Once they’re in place, you have a neighborhood; until then, you don’t. But the corner grocery model, with just-enough stock management, would quickly be adopted by other stores.

What we have to remember is that the superstores that kill neighborhood retail are actually subsidized to a shocking degree because we build roads for them. They don’t have to build into the prices of their goods the tax money we spend building and maintaining the roads that lead to those stores. Just one more way government action encourages counterproductive retail.

If we figured into the price of what we buy from them the cost of gas and the value of the time we spend driving there, they could not compete with chains that maintain small, walkable local stores with just-enough stock.

With sidewalks, it would be easy to design carts that we could take home; with membership in the local grocery store, we could have the right to take a mini-cart home and bring it back.

I know, you’re thinking, “No way can I fit all my groceries into a cart to take home.” But remember, that’s because you hate driving to the grocery so much that you buy vast quantities of everything all at once so you can avoid taking more trips (though you still go right back for the stuff you forgot, don’t you?)

Neighborhood groceries would be so easy to get to that we would make more visits and buy less each time.

Besides, neighborhood stores make delivery practical again. It would be a great job for some of those teenagers who aren’t getting killed in cars anymore; their wages would be paid for out of the money saved by not having to overstock all the most popular items, and out of the lower cost of operating a smaller store compared to the amount of stock flowing through it.

(I’ve been writing a series of essays about grocery stores, and this is an ingenious idea). I’ve noticed how the proliferation of Walmarts in Houston is killing small and midsized grocery stores and increasing the time necessary to buy a load of bread.

Commenting about the article specifically, I think Card might find Houston to be an interesting case. Houston has no zoning whatsoever, so we have lots of integrated business/residential neighborhoods. And yet it is as pedestrian-unfriendly as can be. The problem with mass transit is commute time. Sometimes the whole act of getting into a bus and going somewhere can take 60-75 minutes even for relatively short distances. No one likes that. I live along the Richmond bus line which comes by every 15 or 20 minutes during peak traffic. That is good. On the other hand, if I had to do a transfer, chances are my enthusiasm would wane considerably.

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