A few years ago, former Councilmember Kelly Allen Gray noticed that dollar stores were invading her district in Fort Worth, Texas. There were almost one hundred of them in a 15-mile radius, concentrated to the East and Southeast of Interstate 35—the majority-minority side of town. The stores were crowding out grocery stores and small businesses and were magnets for crime.
“Why is this neighborhood not valued?” Gray reflected. “Why is this the best that we can get?”
In less than a decade, the two dominant chains—Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which bought Family Dollar in 2015—grew from 20,000 to 34,000 locations nationwide. This growth is not slowing down: Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar plan to open 1,600 new stores this year, representing almost half of large retail chains’ new store openings.
Dollar stores thrive off of the economically disadvantaged. Dollar General describes its core customers as “low and fixed-income households.” The chains target small towns and low-income urban neighborhoods like southeast Fort Worth that often have large minority populations. The company’s Chief Executive Todd Vasos has said, “we do very good in good times, and we do fabulous in bad times.”
While the companies present themselves as affordable sources of food in neighborhoods that have not been served by traditional retailers, dollar stores rarely stock nutritious options. Despite the limited fresh food available, more Americans buy their food at dollar stores than Whole Foods—often because they have no other alternative. “You see in this area, it’s pretty much like a food drought,” Southeast Fort Worth activist Terrence Watson told More Perfect Union. “But when you bring a dollar store, it’s not even healthy at all.”
The Fort Worth ordinance requires any future dollar stores meet two requirements: they cannot be located within two miles of an existing dollar store and at least 10 percent of the stock must be fresh produce, meat, and dairy products. “It’s given some freedom to grocery stores to actually look back in the area and think about relocating here,” Gray told More Perfect Union.
Fort Worth is not alone in resisting the growth of these predatory businesses. Kansas City, Kansas, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma, Birmingham, Alabama, and Georgia’s DeKalb County have also passed laws restricting dollar stores and offering financing for new grocery stores. Before passing the ordinance, “I did not realize how strongly people felt about dollar stores,” Gray said. “The sky’s the limit and the limit is the sky.”