Segment from Counter Culture

Boxed In

Scholar Louis Hyman talks to Brian about the rise of the modern box store as a rebellion against the carefully controlled world of the department store.

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NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.

PETER: In some ways, the emergence of shopping malls transformed the experience of shopping in America. Where once people did their shopping on foot in the city center, they could now do it by car, far from crowded downtowns and all the headaches city life entailed. But in other ways, the change wasn’t really all that dramatic.

LOUIS HYMAN: In many ways, the suburban mall is a department store writ large.

PETER: This is historian Louis Hyman. He points out that like department stores, malls were designed to be one-stop shopping experiences, and actually facilitated the move of department stores like Macy’s into suburbia. But an arguably more profound revolution in American retail emerged in the 1960s. And it emerged literally in the shadow of those malls we just heard about.

LOUIS HYMAN: Right. It’s actually pretty hilarious. These malls, which are trying to cater to a more affluent clientele, and so they won’t let the discounters, they won’t let Kmart be in the same shopping center as a Macy’s. And so all they do is they say, fine, we’ll just look across the street and we’ll buy that land–

BRIAN: At half the price.

LOUIS HYMAN: –at half the price. And voila, the American big box store is invented.

BRIAN: Hyman wrote about the big box revolution in a recent book called Borrow, the American Way of Debt. In that book, he talks about how stores like Kmart and Target had faith that suburban shoppers would eventually choose them over both the mall and the department store. Why? Because they had deals.

LOUIS HYMAN: Today we are overwhelmed by sales year round.

BRIAN: Yeah.

LOUIS HYMAN: We are always going flitting from store to store and now online looking for great deals. And this wasn’t actually the way people shopped in the early postwar period. Today when we have manufacturer’s suggested retail price on things, we look at that and we scoff and we say, that’s not real. That’s just there to make us think we’re getting a good deal, which of course I fall for every single time.

BRIAN: Right. That’s like that thing on the hotel door where you look at the rate and say, oh my god, $1,200. Oh no. They don’t really mean that at Hampton Inn, do they?

LOUIS HYMAN: What do you mean? I totally pay $1,200 every time I– no. Exactly. Exactly. And so it makes you feel like you got a good deal. And you feel like you really know what you’re doing.

But those prices were real. Coming out of the 1930s, states passed fair trade laws to keep manufacturing going, to keep those jobs going, to keep prices high so that people would have a place to work. And then, after they had their wages, they could spend them on relatively high-priced goods. And so the system was a world where there wouldn’t really be that much difference in price between different stores. And so places like department stores competed instead on services, services like gift wrap, services like delivery, services like consumer credit.

And so this world was beginning to come undone by the 1960s, because state by state, starting in Louisiana, those laws were rolled back. As this is happening, there’s also a rise in stores that begin to sell– first they sell leftovers, because the manufacturing capacity of America was growing astronomically that there’s so much stuff that they can sell things that are only slightly damaged somewhere in a converted old factory and they–

BRIAN: Right. They’re called seconds. Seconds, is that what they’re called?

LOUIS HYMAN: Factory seconds. That’s exactly right. And at first, discounters were these kinds of stores, places with heaps of slightly off sweaters that working people would go and get a good deal on.

But then they become something different. And that’s when what we think of today as discounters, the great trifecta of Kmart, Walmart, and Target, all coming into being in 1962.

BRIAN: Isn’t that incredible that they all came into– I found that stunning in your book. Why 1962?

LOUIS HYMAN: They all come into being in 1962 because it’s a moment when retailers are beginning to realize the limit of their retail models in that exact moment. And so you have different kinds of stores, department stores, five and dimes, trying to reinvent themselves into a new form and take advantage of these lower prices.

BRIAN: But I don’t get it. What actually is so different about going into these stores?

LOUIS HYMAN: I think that it’s important to realize first what it is to go to a department store in 1960.

BRIAN: Great.

LOUIS HYMAN: And for your younger listeners, it’s impossible to imagine.

BRIAN: Sure.

LOUIS HYMAN: You dress up, or rather I dress up in basically my Sunday best, complete with gloves. I go downtown. And I spend the entire day shopping there.

And shopping before the big box store was an incredibly stressful situation, because you were never shopping alone. You were always shopping with a clerk. And the clerk kept you from the things you wanted to buy. And all of that went away with the rise of the discount store.

People were excited about the prices, for sure. But they were mostly excited about being able to do self-service, being able to wander the aisles, look at these new pipe-racked clothes, either– clothes hanging on racks like we have today. And they’re able to touch them, able to feel them, able to try them on.

They’re able to gather and spend their time. And nobody was harassing them. Nobody was telling them what to do. And at the same time, you could just wear jeans to go shopping.


LOUIS HYMAN: You didn’t have to wear a dress. And you could bring your kids. And your kids could actually misbehave a little and you could still buy your stuff.

BRIAN: Louis, are we supposed to conclude that the moral of this story is, you know, shoppers are in the driver’s seat, quite literally, and business is just responding to them?

LOUIS HYMAN: These changes are a response to shifts in the way in which we want to live, in terms of spending our time and how we do our shopping. But nobody is just a consumer. Nobody is just a worker. We’re all many things. And so sometimes parts of our social lives can benefit and other parts can fall apart.

So one of the things that economists talk about is the Walmart effect, and the way in which the cheapness of Walmart keeps down the price of goods for working people. At the same time, Walmart also keeps down the wages of working people and destroys traditional retail job opportunities. So part of what I think we need to think about is where we want the benefits to go. Maybe we would be comfortable paying higher prices for things if it meant that we also had better jobs and more security in other parts of our lives.


BRIAN: Louis Hyman is a historian at Cornell University. He’s the author of several books, Debtor Nation, and also Borrow, the American Way of Debt.