Thursday, July 15, 2010

Shame on Family Dollar! Is it really that hard to be a good corporate citizen?

I am now in year two of my quest to find a decent Family Dollar that contributes, rather than detracts, to the physical aesthetics of the street. By decent I mean ANY Family Dollar with decent window displays that contribute to an appealing retail environment. Why is this important to those of us concerned about urban communities? In many lower-income urban neighborhoods, Family Dollar serves a real need – they are often one of the few general merchandise retailers selling to neighborhood residents. With over 6,000 locations nationwide, they are also ubiquitous in lower-income urban communities, and they are growing quickly, with over 140 new stores slated to open in 2010 alone. Moreover, in many places Family Dollar effectively functions as the prime retail anchor, attracting customers and driving traffic to the street. Unfortunately, what I have found over and over again is that Family Dollar turns its back on the communities where they are located. Their window displays are not just poor, they are often downright atrocious. And their utter disregard for basic retailing principles results in stores that undermine any attempt to improve district aesthetics, the perception of district safety, and set a positive example for other businesses in the commercial district as a whole.

My quest to find a Family Dollar with decent window displays began while doing work in Newark, NJ. After conducting a number of shopper focus groups for a client, it became clear that residents and local employees desperately wanted a more appealing and ‘safe feeling’ street. Specifically they wanted more attractive storefront displays from local merchants. In our efforts to improve the shopping environment, we identified the local Family Dollar as ‘low hanging fruit’—the store in question had great, large windows facing the street, and the location was visible to more than 20,000 cars a day that passed through the district. But instead of filling these windows with appealing merchandise to entice shoppers, the spaces were filled with faded signs, empty cardboard boxes and provided no visuals into the store. Instead, shoppers were graced with the backs of display cases. The utter failure of local management to take advantage of such an obvious selling opportunity, not to mention their lack of concern for how their stores looked to pedestrians and drivers, was difficult to understand. How could a retailer with over 6,000 stores ignore such an obvious selling opportunity? At the time, I thought, “there has to be at least one Family Dollar out there with decent window displays”. And so began my quest.

By now, I have seen Family Dollars in over a dozen urban communities from Philadelphia to New York to Chicago. Yet not a single Family Dollar seems to put even a modicum of thought into its window displays. How can that be? Is it corporate policy to ignore the face they present to the street? Is Family Dollar simply making so much money that they can disregard these obvious selling opportunities? Do they have so little respect for their customers that they feel they don’t need to even try to sell to them? Do they understand the links between their storefronts and the shopping environment that they helping shape? Perhaps they know that their customers often have few alternatives to Family Dollar – so why bother? I have come to conclude that they simply don’t care. They must be doing so well that they can ignore good retail practices in the communities they serve. In the process, their clear disregard for the public face they present to the street hurts community morale and is a real detriment to the shopping environment overall. This is partly why so many communities see them as unwanted additions to local retail mix. And I can’t say that I blame them.

What can Family Dollar Do?

Family Dollar is in an excellent position to be a better corporate citizen. This would not only improve their bottom line and market penetration; it would help improve the street environment from both an aesthetic and safety perspective.

For starters, most chain stores of that magnitude train their management staff in visual merchandise techniques. They can also take the extra step and develop retail ‘planograms’ {} for their managers. These are basically visual guides that define how merchandise should be displayed and are an excellent way for Family Dollar to ensure consistency and quality across their stores. At the most basic level, Family Dollar can encourage managers to review sales data and develop seasonal displays that help move merchandise.

Improving the look and feel of Family Dollar accomplishes a double bottom line – one for the company and another for the community. By turning stores that are often eye sores into pleasing storefronts that contribute to the aesthetics of the street, they also help improve people’s perception of the safety of the district, which helps all businesses.

Overall – getting Family Dollar to become a better corporate citizen would ultimately improve thousands of commercial corridors across this country. Seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?


  1. Those displays might be part of the Family Dollar aesthetic. Gussying the windows up with fancy displays might suggest higher prices or more expensive products, which isn't what the target market is looking for. I tend to agree with your perspective (surely a modest display/effort wouldn't be counter-productive), but as devil's advocate, maybe this is just a different kind of pitch...

  2. They are definitely going for a low-end, no frills approach, that's for sure. But there are many examples of similar lower cost retailers who at least display product in their windows. In New York this includes Conways, Shoppers World, Brooklyn USA, and Children's Place. In the food world, McDonald's and Taco Bell come to mind. With over 6,000 stores, they can certainly show the communities in which they reside a little respect. But I take your point, it's sort of like the Chinese Take Out restaurant that doesn't want to replace their plexiglass windows with glass because then their regular customers might think they've raised their prices. But just think what a difference it would make to these neighborhoods if Family Dollar changed their practice. As community development professionals, this would be a worthy effort to support.