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Whither the Category Killer?
Are mid-sized big-box stores Goldilocks buildings, or just wrong for everyone?
America has too many stores. Amid wars, recessions, retail bankruptcies and the explosion of online retail, this is one thing that appears not to have changed in the 21st century. “The U.S. has way more retail space than it needs,” said Fast Company in 2020. “America has too many retail stores,” RetailWire declared in 2019. “The Brutal Truth Is That America Still Has Way Too Many Places to Shop,” opined TheStreet in 2017. “The actions of developers strongly suggests that there remains too much retail space in America,” suggested WYPR, Maryland’s public radio station, in 2015. And, in 2008, Slate ran a piece whose thesis is old now and was old even then: “America Has Too Many Stores.”
Like running out of oil or achieving nuclear fusion, paring American brick-and-mortar retail down to size always seems far away—in this case, several chain bankruptcies away. Retail in general has struggled over at least the last 10 to 15 years, following the rise of Amazon and the continuing competitiveness of the big-box department store segment—now represented almost exclusively by Walmart and Target. The struggles of old-fashioned department stores and the related decline of the mall (and its reinvention as a mixed-use “town center”) has been one major story throughout this period.
Another, however, has been the particular decline of the “category killer,” or the product-specific superstore, the latest death in the family being Bed Bath & Beyond. That chain itself once competed with the shuttered Linens N’ Things, a second home-goods category killer. Home Depot and Lowe’s once competed with fellow home-improvement chains Channel, Rickel, Pergament and Hechinger’s. Bookstore chain Borders collapsed in the early 2010s. The computer-and-software superstore—places like the now-defunct Fry’s Electronics or CompUSA—barely even exists, surviving only in the small chain Micro Center. I could go on.
Less Retail, More Space
The shrinking of the category-killer segment has changed American shopping habits (and has resulted, too, from changing shopping habits). And it has certainly left us with fewer places to shop, at least in the brick-and-mortar world. But these bankruptcies do not, for the most part, change the amount of raw square footage that exists in this form in the built environment. The disappearance of these stores as going concerns usually does not entail the demolition of their structures.
And so our retail space per person has increased, even as our brick-and-mortar retail options have diminished and concentrated. One analysis found that in 2022, the United States had about 57 square feet of retail space per capita, slightly up from about 54 in the year 2000. This greatly exceeds any other country’s per capita numbers. Not surprisingly, the United States also has a surplus of parking spaces: anywhere between 2.5 to 7 per person.
Urban sprawl is a major factor here; even now, in northern Virginia (where I live) and other growing metro areas, new housing developments with their own local and regional retail are being built at the fringes. We have a tendency to start over, rather than repurpose; to build all at once, rather than in layers. And so, because so much of our vacant retail sits in communities that are already “built out,” their existence does little to slow the construction of new retail at the frontiers of these metro areas.
What, then, does this glut of vacated, quasi-obsolete buildings, frequently in deeply settled and fairly densely populated places, leave us? The buildings left behind by category-killer chains, usually in the range of 30,000-50,000 square feet, are an awkward size for either small, independent businesses or more general big-box stores (which, in any case, are also largely “built out”).
Many of these storefronts are vacant, and some unknown number will remain so for the long term. And among those which are reused, they may very well not remain retail. Writing about the fate of the Borders storefronts about a decade out from the chain’s bankruptcy, I informally polled Twitter and searched Google Maps to come up with a rough idea of how these spaces had evolved.
Demolition or occupancy with a similar type of store were minority outcomes. What stood out to me was this: “A little more than a fifth of the former Borders spaces I looked at are no longer retail at all; their uses include studios, gyms, medical clinics or facilities, a daycare, and a coworking space.” A number of them also ended up as large restaurants or small supermarkets. An increasingly popular use that did not show up in my informal poll was indoor trampoline parks, which have filled several of these types of storefronts in my immediate area.
In any case, unlike with small storefronts, the new tenants for these buildings are almost always chains. This underscores another point: Not only do we have a surplus of retail square footage, but much of it is also locked up in inflexible spaces, reducing its apparent usefulness to entrepreneurs and small business owners. These spaces are too large (and therefore too expensive) for the average small business, and while they are sometimes professionally subdivided into small strip plazas, this is a large job in the hands of commercial landlords, not tenants.
The new tenants are often discount stores like Ross or HomeGoods; on occasion, they will be trendier and more popular stores, which bring some of the energy the category killer once did. A good example is Total Wine, a beer and wine superstore which also offers wine tastings and classes, making it a social space, if only a little.
Opportunity for Small Businesses
Sometimes, however, a chain tenant actually signals opportunity for small businesses. Not far from my home, a Korean supermarket filled a space once home to a Hechinger’s and later an early, smaller Lowe’s (the Lowe’s moved elsewhere in the same plaza, to a new, larger building). The Korean supermarket consistently fills its immediate parking lot, benefiting the other, smaller tenants in the strip; remember that the modern strip plaza, like the mall, almost always has at least one anchor store, the loss of which hurts the whole property.
But, more importantly, this Korean supermarket opens up opportunities for small businesses in a more direct way. It includes tiny indoor storefronts around much of the perimeter of the market, including a row of small restaurants, a bakery and a handful of specialty stores. These are not departments of the supermarket; they are leased sections occupied by independent business owners.
This sort of thing is not unusual at all in much of the world; in the United States, however, it is rare. You might see this format in the Subway, bank and optical center in a Walmart Supercenter, but these spaces are rarely home to independent enterprises. Much of this is probably cultural, in one way or another: a preference among commercial landlords for known quantities, for example, or an expectation that suburban business be quiet and buttoned-up, not bustling and variegated. Indeed, the fact that the crowded, distributed, seemingly chaotic interior of that Korean supermarket might bring to mind things like “cities” and “immigrants” is—for some suburbanites—an argument against it.
But given that chain retail in the United States is not going anywhere, even if it is diminished, it is promising that a successful chain can literally make space for smaller businesses, if it chooses to. It is at least possible to leverage this retail status quo to the advantage of other businesses. One way of thinking about this is separating retail space per person from productive enterprises per person. They are not as tightly aligned as we probably think they are.
This hints at a broader solution to our transition from “too many stores” to “too many empty stores.” Forget using all of that empty space, and ignore the inevitable coming headlines about America’s overbuilt commercial square footage. Instead, consider how to achieve greater commercial density, and how to imagine these big, empty boxes not as obsolete containers for a struggling retail segment, but as blank canvases, constrained, more than anything else, by our imaginations.