Beginning of the End for Big Box Dominance?

With the announcement of the closure of 50 big box retail outlets, Best Buy recently added more evidence to a growing suspicion about the demise of the big box store as the dominating force in retail. The electronics giant becomes the latest in a series of big box retailers that is shuttering large storefronts in some volume, following Circuit City, Borders, Sears, and several others.

It may be viewed as a sign of economic turbulence, the shift to online purchasing, or even a revitalized interest in buying local, but the trend is pretty clear. With large footprints, giant stores have huge tax, energy, water, and rent obligations, and drops in retail sales can become strong enough motivation for companies like Best Buy to jump ship.

One of the biggest challenges with big box stores is their footprint. Almost by definition, they create suburban sprawl and communities that are not walkable. And once they’re closed, all those tax incentives given by city councils to lure in the company become tax burdens to the local community with no benefits in job creation or opportunity. So…with all these stores closing up, the question shifts to what we do with them. Julia Christensen’s book, Big Box Reuse, offers some ideas.

In some communities, other large companies might move in, but stores built to suit the particular needs of a tenant often need substantial renovation and many companies will aim to create something new rather than retrofit their models for a particular building. Even the big box king, Wal-Mart, has abandoned 150 stores and is seeking new tenants, not because they’re gone under or become unprofitable, but because they needed to build a new store to accommodate their retail strategy. The old stores are sterile enough, by design, to be useful to another generic big box store, but still not specific enough for the particular retailers out there, in other words.

Or so it would seem. Given fierce resistance to a new Wal-Mart in Vancouver, Wal-Mart was denied a building permit by the city. It went back to the drawing board and came back with a design for an environmentally responsible building, with skylights and even a few small windmills and a geothermal system. The city still rejected the plan for traffic, congestion and pollution issues. In the end, Wal-Mart decided to retrofit an existing big box store that was…empty.

So the first step is to resist new big box stores in your area and insist that the company use something already in place.

Christensen gives ten case studies on what can be done with empty big box stores in her book. But in the end, it’s just going to take creativity. After all, it’s a giant potential resource that’s ready to be used, and business developers coming in with a plan to fix up a blight are likely to get help from a lot of unexpected sources, as well as smoother passage through city hall.

Why not create giant indoor gardens? With skylights, temperature control, and the ability to isolate, controlling pests and doing organic agriculture in a former big-box store could become a huge boon to even the most cold-weather cities.
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Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.