The Dollar Tree Economy

The Dollar Tree Economy

Dollar Tree has become the go-to symbol of Bidenflation and a scapegoat for corporate greed. But it’s the discount giant’s role in rural America that is most telling about our nation’s cultural divide.

The checkout line was surprisingly short at the Dollar Tree in Carthage, Tennessee, on Christmas Eve 2020. My wife was rounding out the final hours of her shift as a manager at the nearest movie theatre six towns over, hoping that Warner Brothers’s decision to toss Wonder Woman 1984 on a few screens that first pandemic Christmas would be the difference between multiplexes making it through the bleak January ahead and her going back on the goosed-up unemployment benefits that had to expire sooner rather than later. We were cautious, but financially comfortable, leading me to make a last-minute jaunt to the location of the dollar-store behemoth’s outpost a few miles away from Al Gore’s former family farm so that I could fill out our stockings. After all, the latest stimmie check would be in our bank accounts by the first of the year, so some boxed candy and a notebook or two stamped with a holographic angsty cat seemed the right kind of sensible yuletide distraction.

The family of three in front of me had lingered at the counter for quite some time. A toddler sprinted from the checkout to an adjacent display of holiday children’s books, showcasing each for his mother as his father thumbed through a thin clump of cash. The mother feigned her disinterest as she mimed for her son to put the books back. After handing over the money in its entirety to the cashier, the father paused before sliding an EBT card from his wallet, an action that broke my passive gaze. I glanced at their cart: frozen dinners, a few knock-off G.I. Joe’s and Transformers, cans of green beans and corn from a seasonal endcap, a few bottles of off-brand cleaning supplies. The father tensed. The mother’s eyes drifted to the counter. In unison, the couple made a play for the cleaning supplies. Without a word, the cashier brushed the bottles to the side–ready to restock as soon as she got a break–an action that seemed like second nature. I wanted to snap up that pine cleanser and detergent and run them out to the family’s mid-90s van in a last-minute display of low-stakes Christmas spirit. But the whole thing made me queasy with middle classness. Who was I to infringe on a family’s pride or make assumptions about the state of their finances? I convinced myself that the cashier had the right idea: keep things moving. When it came my turn, I slammed my credit card into the chip reader as she bagged my $27.49 of frivolity. On Christmas morning, my wife and I had a good laugh about the holographic cats. The notebooks are now at the bottom of one of our desk drawers—not even opened. I don’t look at them because they remind me I never figured out what to do that Christmas Eve. At least three dozen trips to Dollar Tree later, I still haven’t.

When Dollar Tree announced in early December that it was raising its prices, conservatives seized on the chance to exploit such a fruitful display of Bidenflation in their talking points with  a palpable glee over its progressive-wounding possibilities. Wall Streeters speculated on how the decision would affect stock prices as they rushed to diagnose the company’s earnings outlook. MSNBC MSNBCed like always, blaming the hike on corporate greed as Stephanie Ruhle deemed the increase unnecessary for a company that pays its CEO $10 million and made $1.2 billion in net income during a year when it was one of the few essential retailers allowed to stay open. Amid the punditry class’s feverish sprint toward the limelight, all I could think about was how that family buying Christmas dinner and presents would absorb the store’s across-the-board hike to $1.25 per item set to commence in early 2022.

With inflation out of control and the majority of Dollar Tree’s inventory fully reliant on China-based supply chains, the company based in Chesapeake, VA, found itself caught between the economy’s two greatest contemporary challenges in late 2021, unable to simply absorb the costs as higher-end companies from Target to Macy’s to Nordstrom did due to its brand identity. “This is our first price change in 35 years, and it will let us continue offering customers all the items they have come to know and love, add hundreds of new merchandise options, and bring back customer favorites at an incredible value,” Kayleigh Painter, spokesperson for Dollar Tree’s Manager, Investor and Media Relations departments said. “We understand that this is a big change for our customers. We remain fiercely committed to our mission of bringing families extreme value every day along with more thrills, more fun, and new items every week.”

Before my wife and I moved to Carthage in the summer of 2019, I don’t think I’d ever been in a Dollar Tree. Now it’s a regular stop for me, a low-cost reward full of the thrills and fun Painter mentions that I give myself on Thursdays when I return from my commute to the East Tennessee liberal-arts college where I teach. My adrenaline rushes as the seasonal aisle undergoes its weekly reinventions, inviting me to snap up a glittery reindeer wall hanger, a pack of 3-D stickers featuring sloths dangling from hearts, or a polyester scarf emblazoned with the word “thankful” in cursive. Last summer, I prided myself on telling everyone that I managed to keep birds out of our strawberry patch and away from our elderberry bushes by dropping a twenty on a carload of plastic pinwheels decked out in bee, ladybug, and Old Glory patterns. My wife rolls her eyes when I bring home armloads of books that she knows I probably won’t read as I remind her of the time I found an autographed Michael Chabon memoir among the store’s stacks. Friends have banned me from suggesting any more Dollar Tree DVD’s on our movie nights as I cart around bags of indie films, rom-coms, and horror movies that have expired and been resurrected on our streaming queues every six months for the past five years.

It’s a rare occurrence that I buy something I actually need at Dollar Tree, but I’ve shopped enough at our rural location to know I’m not exactly its target demographic. We moved to Carthage from a neighborhood in Hendersonville, TN, whose claim to fame is either the highest-volume trick-or-treating destination in the state or the Obama fan who still refers to “the renters” on the HOA’s Facebook group every time its lilywhite members post a picture of a Black teenager ripped from their Ring in a panic the day a school fundraiser starts. I’d become jaded with the farcical problems and arbitrary regulations that—pre-COVID—seemed like the ultimate manifestations of petty authority a suburbanite could muster. So, we moved to a 125-year-old farmhouse in deplorable country with office views of cow pastures and the smell of the goat farm up the just-paved road wafting over to our property on windy days. In that former hometown I shared with Taylor Swift, the Dollar Tree was on the side of the city leading into Madison where Publix and Barnes & Noble gave way to one-hour lube stations and payday-loan offices. But in a town where the shopping options are limited to a fourth-tier Wal-Mart that doesn’t have optical or automotive departments, an Ace Hardware, a smaller independent hardware store, two Dollar Generals (soon to be a third), a Tractor Supply, the Co-Op, a semi-revitalized downtown of a half-dozen newly opened boutiques, and Carthage Sav-Way (an outlier of a local grocery store that is somehow thriving), Dollar Tree is a major player.

Not every town home to one or more of Dollar Tree’s 15,500+ U.S. locations shares the demographics of Carthage (or Crossville, Algood, Cookeville, Lenoir City, Jefferson City or the other areas with outposts of the store that I frequent). However, the company has made increasing its rural presence a priority since acquiring Family Dollar in 2015, primarily through its aggressive opening of hybrid locations of the two retailers. Though Dollar Tree is ubiquitous even in suburban enclaves, it and Family Dollar tend to play integral roles in communities made up of rural residents and the urban poor (the company’s customer-service surveys are the only I have encountered that do not offer an option to select a six-figure household income). Of course, such a business model comes with the expected chorus of critics. The success of Carthage Sav-Way aside, Dollar Tree and its biggest competitor—the Goodlettsville-based Dollar General—serve for some as the rural equivalent of Wal-Mart, initiating the mom-and-pop apocalypse to maximize profits. Another criticism that lingers from the days before the debunking of food deserts is the lack of fresh produce sold at such discount retailers, which Dollar Tree begun to rectify at its Family Dollar and hybrid locations in 2020 according to Painter. “We initiated a test of fresh produce and frozen meats in select Family Dollar stores, focusing on markets where shoppers have fewer grocery options. We aim to provide these customers with convenient access to basic produce items, as well as beef, poultry, and pork,” she said.

Stores offering healthy eating options in areas of the country with few shopping outlets seems like an admirable goal. However, such initiatives appeal much more to a type of cosmopolitan armchair intellectual looking down on my fellow rubes in flyover country than anyone who has a thorough understanding of the role Dollar Tree and stores that share its business model play in a rural ecosystem (there’s a reason most of the prior reportage I reviewed for this article comes from CNN and NPR’s obsessive play-by-plays of Dollar Tree’s every move, and it’s certainly not my affinity for either outlet). While my neighbors and I surely wouldn’t object to a selection of greens and tomatoes next to the flamingo-shaped tape dispensers at Dollar Tree, many of us are already growing that produce at home. Such is one of the reasons Dollar Tree’s stock of seeds and garden supplies stays on shelves for less time than perhaps any other semi-annual offering. Not to mention, many of the mythic rural sites like the Gore Family Farm a skip and jump from my local store are home to the CSA’s urbanites love to tell you they belong to as they lament how us rural folks are too dumb to survive tornadoes or get vaccinated.

Rather than produce, what rural residents want from Dollar Tree is a host of options we can’t get without a daytrip to the nearest mid-size city. Our local teachers need a place to go where they can decorate their classrooms that service Smith County’s 20,000 residents without paying $5 for half a bulletin-board border. Parents lacking the time and means to regularly drive to the nearest Hobby Lobby forty minutes up or down I-40 can find enough holiday and evergreen crafts to keep kids occupied. Those families on tight budgets who can’t afford a full box of Apple Jacks every week can treat their kids to a smaller serving unavailable at the local Wal-Mart now and again as a name-brand break from Malt-O-Meal.

More importantly, rural residents need an outlet that will offer future generations stability as they transition into their lives as young adults, which Dollar Tree offers, albeit without the same gleam as our urban counterparts’ college-application-padding nonprofit gigs. “In many communities, our stores represent much needed full- and part-time employment opportunities,” Painter said. “To support our commitment to providing associates with career development and educational opportunities, the company recently launched ValuED, our education assistance program. This new program provides associates with financial support and offers a wide range of development opportunities for upward mobility within the organization. Full-time associates are eligible for tuition discounts and reimbursement allowances for college degrees and GED programs, as well as language courses.”  The company also partners with several national nonprofits, including Operation Homefront, United Way of South Hampton Roads, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America through donation drives as well as direct financial contributions.

For Stephanie Ruhle and her ilk, Dollar Tree’s price hikes are merely a smokescreen to maximize profits. However, regulars of the store have firsthand knowledge of the company’s challenges over the past half year. Options for staple items like frozen meals, boxed grains, and canned vegetables have dwindled by half while more healthy snack offerings like plantain chips and turkey jerky haven’t graced shelves since people were posting their vaccine cards on Facebook. As the supply-chain crisis worsened, the store reverted back to unsold stock from previous holiday seasons, limiting items to the crafts, stationery, and holiday décor its customers likely overbought amid 2020’s War on Joy. While such limitations on inventory hurt the budget consumer, Painter hopes the price adjustments will restore the company’s pre-2021 selection: “The new price point will enhance our ability to materially expand our offerings, introduce new products and sizes, and provide families with more of their daily essentials,” Painter said. “We will have greater flexibility to continue providing incredible value, which helps customers get the everyday items they need and celebratory and seasonal products Dollar Tree is best known for. Additionally, this new pricing strategy enables us to reintroduce many customer favorites and key traffic-driving products that were previously discontinued due to the constraints of the $1.00 price point.”

In Carthage, Dollar Tree shoppers are readying for the final Christmas before the price hike takes effect. A mother asks an employee to inflate a pile of helium balloons while she browses last season’s Hallmark Christmas cards. A grandmother scours the bins of outdoor decorations for solar-powered elves and candy canes to light her driveway on a limited income. Other shoppers coast by the barren shelves, rifling through the diverse but diminishing offerings for an item that will make the season all the warmer in light of the Omicron variant’s manufactured doom. But, whether its patrons think about it or not, those price increases are coming—just another sign of the times as they look forward to the next family gathering or holiday punchline that hinges on a holographic-cat notebook before our dollar stops going as far as it used to.