The Food is Too Damn High

Get me higher than the grocery bill.

In a NYT guest editorial, Stacy Mitchell, the executive director of something called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, purports to explain “The Real Reason Your Groceries Are Getting So Expensive.” The start is not promising:

Food Fresh is the only grocery store in a rural stretch of southeastern Georgia. It has many five-star Google reviews praising its freshly butchered meats, tomato bar and friendly service. Yet it faces a threat to its survival that no amount of management skill can overcome. Big retailers like Walmart and Kroger “have a handle on suppliers that I can’t touch,” said Food Fresh’s owner, Michael Gay. The chains wrest deep discounts from suppliers, making it impossible for the store to come close to matching the chains’ prices.

To understand why grocery prices are way up, we need to look past the headlines about inflation and reconsider long-held ideas about the benefits of corporate bigness.

Like other independent grocers, Food Fresh buys through large national wholesalers that purchase goods by the truckload, achieving the same volume efficiencies the big chains do. What accounts for the difference in price is not efficiency but raw market power. Major grocery suppliers, including Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Clorox, rely on Walmart for more than 20 percent of their sales. So when Walmart demands special deals, suppliers can’t say no. And as suppliers cut special deals for Walmart and other large chains, they make up for the lost revenue by charging smaller retailers even more, something economists refer to as the water bed effect.

This isn’t competition. It’s big retailers exploiting their financial control over suppliers to hobble smaller competitors. Our failure to put a stop to it has warped our entire food system. It has driven independent grocers out of business and created food deserts. It has spurred consolidation among food processors, which has slashed the share of food dollars going to farmers and created dangerous bottlenecks in the production of meat and other essentials. 

I mean, that sucks for smaller grocers but, since I don’t shop at one, it doesn’t explain why my grocery prices are higher. I don’t buy a lot of mine at Walmart anymore, since it’s not all that convenient, mostly shopping at Safeway, Giant, and Wegman’s—all of which are major chains with a national or massive regional footprint.

This finally leads to a thesis statement:

And in a perverse twist, it has raised food prices for everyone, no matter where you shop.

But first, she takes a discursion into history:

A level playing field was long a tenet of U.S. antitrust policy. In the 19th century, Congress barred railroads from favoring some shippers over others. It applied this principle to retailing in 1936 with the Robinson-Patman Act, which mandates that suppliers offer the same terms to all retailers. The act allows large retailers to claim discounts based on actual volume efficiencies but blocks them from extracting deals that aren’t also made available to their competitors. For roughly four decades, the Federal Trade Commission vigorously enforced the act. From 1954 to 1965, the agency issued 81 cease-and-desist orders to stop suppliers of milk, tea, oatmeal, candy and other foods from giving preferential prices to the largest grocery chains.

As a result, the grocery retailing sector was enviable by today’s standards. Independent grocery stores flourished, accounting for more than half of food sales in 1958. Supermarket chains like Safeway and Kroger also thrived. This dynamism fed a broad prosperity. Even the smallest towns and poorest neighborhoods could generally count on having a grocery store. And the industry’s diffuse structure ensured that its fruits were widely distributed. Of the nearly nine million people working in retailing overall in the mid-1950s, nearly two million owned or co-owned the store where they worked. There were more Black-owned grocery stores in 1969 than there are today.

Then, amid the economic chaos and inflation of the late 1970s, the law fell into disfavor with regulators, who had come to believe that allowing large retailers to flex more muscle over suppliers would lower consumer prices. For the most part, the law hasn’t been enforced since. As a top Reagan administration official explained in 1981, antitrust was no longer “concerned with fairness to smaller competitors.”

Note that this was part of a larger, bipartisan consensus that the economy was over-regulated, leading to substantial deregulation efforts under Presidents Carter and Reagan.

This was a serious miscalculation. Walmart, which seized the opening and soon became notorious for strong-arming suppliers and undercutting local businesses, now captures one in four dollars Americans spend on groceries. Its rise spurred a cascade of supermarket mergers, as other chains sought to match its leverage over suppliers. If the latest of these mergers — Kroger’s bid to buy Albertsons — goes through, just five retailers will control about 55 percent of grocery sales. Food processors in turn sought to counterbalance the retailers by merging. Supermarket aisles may seem to brim with variety, but most of the brands you see are made by just a few conglomerates.

But this has been happening over the course of half a century, a period that, until COVID broke everything, was marked with essentially no inflation and a massive explosion in consumer buying power. By almost every conceivable measure, we’re more affluent than our Carter-era counterparts.

These food giants are now the dominant buyers of crops and livestock. The lack of competition has contributed to the decline in farmers’ share of the consumer grocery dollar, which has fallen by more than half since the 1980s. In the absence of rivals, food conglomerates have over time increasingly been able to raise prices and as a result have reported soaring profits over the past two years. Inflation gives them a cover story, but it’s the lack of competition that allows them to get away with it. Meat prices surged last year among the four companies that control most pork, beef and poultry processing. Companies like PepsiCo and General Mills have also jacked up prices without seeing any loss of sales — a sure sign of uncontested market power.

So, on the one hand, this is quite plausible. That was always the fear of consolidation: as companies gained market power, consumers would have no alternatives. But, again, it didn’t happen until the pandemic broke the supply chains. Further, it works both ways: if a handful of companies dominate the market, any one of them could benefit massively by holding the line on prices while their competitors try to price gouge. Absent evidence of collusion, the mechanism for this is unclear. (And “inflation” isn’t an “excuse” for higher prices; it’s a measure of prices.)

This has resulted in an ever-worsening cycle: As a system dominated by a few retailers lifts prices across the board — even at Walmart — consumers head to those retailers because of their ability to wrest relatively lower prices or simply because they’re the only options left. Walmart’s share of grocery sales swelled last year as more people flocked to its stores.

Way back in 2008, a longtime regular commenter who abruptly disappeared in 2011, sent me a copy of Tom Slee’s No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice. It’s an interesting read on both the business practices of the retail giant and the nature of collective action problems. Walmart (as it’s long since rebranded) isn’t that powerful a presence locally but it was more-or-less the only game in town when I lived in Troy, Alabama 20-plus years ago.

Meanwhile, the decline of independent grocers, which disproportionately serve rural small towns and Black and Latino neighborhoods, has left debilitating gaps in our food system. If Food Fresh were to close, residents of Evans County, where the store is, would have to subsist on the limited range of packaged foods sold at a local dollar store or drive about 25 minutes to reach a Walmart. (Nearly a quarter of Evans County residents live in poverty.) Living without a grocery store nearby imposes a daily hardship on people and could lead to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related illnesses.

I’m skeptical of the causality here. I get why Walmart and mega-chain supermarkets would drive the local mom-and-pop out of business—in places where there’s a Walmart or mega-chain supermarket. But Walmart isn’t going into these “food deserts.” There’s not enough business there to make it profitable. So, surely, something other than Walmart explains the lack of grocery stores in these places?

Losing small retailers also stifles innovation. New food companies rely on independent retailers to introduce products. But as this diversity of retailers gives way to a monocrop of big chains, start-ups have fewer avenues to success. This results in diminished selection for shoppers, who find store shelves stocked with only what the big food conglomerates choose to produce.

So, first, this has nothing at all to do with answering the titular question nor advancing the ostensible thesis of the article. And, second, while it may be true in theory, it’s simply not true in fact. Or, well, maybe it’s technically true that we only get what conglomerates choose to produce but that they have chosen to give us vastly more variety than we’ve had in the entire span of human history.

Even in my big chain grocery stores, there’s an absurd array of international foods that I’d never seen even a decade ago. I’m old enough to remember when grocery store “Mexican food” was hard shell tacos and grocery store “Chinese food” was that awful canned stuff from Chun King poured over some dried “noodles.” Or when most fruits and vegetables were only available during this thing called a “season.” Or when the bread isle comprised sliced “Wonder” bread, rye, and pumpernickel. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t noticed pumpernickel in ages so maybe there’s something too this argument.

We need to stop big retailers from using their enormous financial leverage over suppliers to tilt the playing field. By resurrecting the Robinson-Patman Act, we could begin to put an end to decades of misguided antitrust policy in which regulators abandoned fair competition in favor of ever-greater corporate scale. There is promising momentum. Last year an unusual coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the F.T.C. urging it to dust off Robinson-Patman. The agency began a broad inquiry in late 2021 into grocery supply issues, which could uncover evidence of price discrimination. This year the agency opened investigations into soft drink and alcohol suppliers for possible violations of the act.

While the article has done little to persuade me that conglomeration is the cause of high food prices, my instinct is that something like the Robinson-Patman Act makes sense. (Presumably, we’d name it after living legislators, what with the four-decade hiatus in enforcement.) While big retailers are naturally going to have pricing advantages over small ones by buying in bulk, exclusionary deals strike me as inherently bad.

These moves are already drawing fire from an old guard locked in bigger-is-always-better thinking. Jason Furman, a Harvard economist who served as a top adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted recently that some of the views calling for a reset of our antitrust policies often seem “grounded less in consumer welfare and more in a view that everyone should be shopping at expensive craft boutiques.” But that’s not the story in places like Evans County. In the early days of the pandemic, as Walmart and Amazon compelled manufacturers to steer scarce supplies their way and worsened shortages at local grocers, Mr. Gay worked long days hustling to find alternate sources.

“My meat is fresher,” he said. “My produce is fresher. My customer service is better. Imagine if you made the playing field level. Imagine what I could do.”

I like the idea of fresher meat and better customer service. But, even though I’m relatively affluent, there’s only so much more that I’m willing to pay. If the Safeway 12 minutes from my house has tenderloin on sale for $15.99 a pound, I’m not going to Gay’s Fresh Mart and paying $29.99 a pound for service with a smile.

If Mitchell’s counter is that Safeway shouldn’t be able to undercut Gay by that amount, she’s essentially making Furman’s argument for him. And, for sure, she’s concerned about something altogether different than “The Real Reason Your Groceries Are Getting So Expensive.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    Years ago Walmart came into the small central Illinois town my sister lived in. They undercut the local stores in price and their store was well staffed and clean. Until they put the other few stores out of business. Within a couple of years their prices shot up and the staffing levels went down. They went from being cheaper than the Chicago suburbs (where the competition is intense) to significantly higher.

  2. Gavin says:

    This isn’t hard.
    If anything, the reason An Understanding is difficult for people to comprehend as to why grocery bills [and many other things too, grocery is simply more noticeable] are much more expensive.. is that objective reality is finally rearing its head to challenge the cognitive dissonance people have internalized regarding capitalism specifically and America in general.
    To be clear: Accepting that capitalism has weaknesses means confronting and [eventually] accepting a number of concepts following from recognition of that weakness regarding the need to form groups to improve those weaknesses, the difficulty of achieving improvements due to corporate capture of both parties, the fact that One Super Leader Just Not A Democrat Because My Pappy Said So will never do these things, etc. So it’s easier to hold on to Amurkah #1 because any questions are too much.

    Welcome to the end state of capitalism — achieve monopoly, jack prices to benefit only the C-suite, no need to increase services provided for that increased cost because you’ve bought all the competition that would theoretically Compete.
    And capture government via corruption – aka Speech according to the FedSoc goons running USSC who were put there explicitly for this purpose – so the populace has no levers to redress their grievances.

  3. Slugger says:

    Isn’t a Kroger buyout/merger of Safeway-Albertson’s underway?

  4. Scott says:

    The grocery business is just one aspect of greater trends in American culture. One, it is increasingly urban and suburban. It is also true that the US is, for better or worse, increasingly homogenized. We have the paradox of the ability to have Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Middle East, African foods in our grocery stores, yet regional American foods are disappearing. Example, growing up, we had foods like liver and onions, tongue, beef steak and kidney pie, all kinds of organ meats. If I tried to serve that these days, I would find rebellion in the household.

    It is also true that we spend less of our budgets on food in general and eat out far more often than in the past. And, quite frankly, most eating out is done at restaurants that are also pretty homogenized. I suspect that grocery shopping in small SE Georgia town is mostly competing with the local DQ, taqueria, and Hardees.

    I just think it is more complicated than the basic thesis presented.

  5. steve says:

    If it is the fault of the big chains then look at their profits. If their profits went up disproportionately more than inflation then they bear a lot of the blame. If not I think what the evidence shows is that the small stores can only be successful if people are willing to pay higher prices and they are voting with their wallets to go to the big stores.


  6. Jen says:

    Margins in grocery stores are something like 2%. Walmart knows this, and uses their size to go into a community, undercut the locals and drive them out of business, then they can raise prices when they are the only game in town.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Jen: I’ve heard that a lot over the last 20 years but seen little evidence of it. In very small towns, Walmart isn’t going in. Places big enough to support a Walmart are big enough to support competing supermarkets. Again, I agree that this drives mom-and-pops out of business. But competition, period? Where’s the evidence?

    EDITED TO ADD: Take the example of Troy, Alabama, population ~17,000, where I lived before moving to the DC area almost 21 years ago. Walmart was definitely king when I lived there and, presumably, still is. They had a nice Supercenter. But it looks like they have multiple Piggly Wiggly and Publix locations, plus some smaller grocery stores.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    This is an apt post for a link I’ve been saving. Martin Wolf is the chief economics commentator for the Financial Times. Wolf wrote a book, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, which I just bought, having followed a link from Brad DeLong to a review by Jonathan Kirshner. Kirshner’s review is the best short, 30,000 ft, description I’ve seen of our current political/economic dilemma. The review starts by quoting Wolf,

    Democracy has disappeared in the past. It would be silly to assume it could not do so again.

    I recommend the whole review for your consideration. The nut is,

    Rigged capitalism—which yields massive concentrations of wealth for a sliver of largely-above-the-law plutocrats, combined with stagnation and declining opportunities for the majority—leads to a basic political problem: “How, after all, does a political party dedicated to the material interests of the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution win and hold power in a universal suffrage democracy? The answer is pluto-populism.” This is where race, identity politics, and the culture wars come into play. The century-long political hammerlock held by the Democratic Party on the Old South was based on voter suppression and other devices that guaranteed, for working-class whites, greater economic opportunity, access to the legal system, and higher social status than Blacks, in exchange for their political support. Bob Dylan, at 22 years old, saw through this in his song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964)—and nearly 60 years later, that game hasn’t changed much.

    They’re “Dixiefying the whole country.

    Around the turn of the last century we had a genuine bottom-up populist movement. It died, but a lot of the reform they pushed, rural electrification and mail delivery foe instance, were eventually implemented and generally recognized as good things. Tea Party, now MAGA, “populism” is nothing like that. “Pluto-populism” nicely captures the difference.

  9. Kenny says:

    @James Joyner:

    Many of those places too small and spread out to sustain a Walmart are filling up with Dollar General stores, the ubiquity of which provides another essay or three.

  10. Lounsbury says:

    I find it very entertaining that for 40 odd years of adult life and certainly for indeed my entire lifespan, the hard-Left keep using the hackneyed phrase (or variations on it) of “end state of capitalism.” Quite amusing.

    In terms of food distribution and supposed food desserts, to the extent this actually exists (I should rather wish to see some rigorous econometrics) certainly other countries manage to have mini-marts with broad reach, run by larger food distributors.

    There are unavoidable economies of scale to distribution in logistics train that really bring down base operating cost if one is part of a larger network and not a mom&pop buyer with minimal storage, minimal food preservation capacity, etc. This is a positive generally.

    If USA has in fact issues that stand up to econometric scrutiny, one should suspect local zoning and rules, and perhaps taxes, may be non-trivial contributory.

    (I do not recall that when I lived in NYC now many decades ago that the mom & pop bodegas in the not-at-all-chichi Bobo other-side-of-river neighbourhood were particularly stocked in anything healthy at all… really rather the contrary).

  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: I see the problem:

    EDITED TO ADD: Take the example of Troy, Alabama, population ~17,000, where I lived before moving to the DC area almost 21 years ago. Walmart was definitely king when I lived there and, presumably, still is. They had a nice Supercenter. But it looks like they have multiple Piggly Wiggly and Publix locations, plus some smaller grocery stores.


    Claxton (where Food Fresh is located) is a city in Evans County, Georgia, United States. The population was 2,746 at the 2010 census,[5] up from 2,276 in 2000. It is the county seat of Evans County.[6]

    Kind of an apples to sofa cushions comparison, n’est pas? (ETA: Not to mention that Troy, AL, is more a bedroom community suburb than either rural or exurban.)

    But for the how of food deserts happening (both urban and rural), we’ve been watching the phenomenon happen for my entire life. Transportation availability, increased opportunity for more selection at better prices (though out of the immediate neighborhood/area), rural stagnation, slowly erode the ability of the independent player to compete. Suddenly, Dobie Gillis decides he doesn’t want to take over dad’s store (or can’t make a living long term doing it). Sometimes dad warns Dobie that there’s no money in this (and Dobie already knows there was never much to begin with) and Dobie needs to seek greener pastures.

    In my case, the live butcher shop we bought our groceries at 3 blocks away from our house became replaced by the Coldspot home chest freezer (we no longer needed the frozen locker service) and the company my dad worked for opening a supermarket within a reasonable driving distance that we needed to shop at our of loyalty to our employer. Said grocery store evolved into a convenience store, and then a hair shop, and then a vacancy. Wash, rinse, repeat for the pharmacy, the coffee shop, and the ice creamery and you have a neighborhood where the nearest services are an hour or so away on foot. Fortunately, you have a car, so this isn’t an issue. But if you don’t have a car…

    I don’t know that there’s a solution to the problem, at least in a country where we can’t even agree on how people should behave at HS graduation (and make an issue of it when they don’t do as WE WANT 🙁 ), but the problem is real–even if most of the people even in Claxton, GA (pop. ~2600) aren’t REALLY impacted by it.

  12. Kathy says:

    In the 2000s, a brief fad for ethanol and flex fuels drove up the prices of grains and the cooking oil made from grains.

    Cooking oil is a big item in food preparation. Government agencies we sell food to use up a LOT. So do welfare programs providing food assistance in kind.

    The following year prices for cooking oil remained high, even as the ethanol fad petered out and grain prices went down. IMO, having see how much their customers would pay, the cooking oil companies left their prices up. they lowered them a bit as things eased, but not as much as they should have.

  13. BugManDan says:

    @James Joyner: I read an article a couple of years ago about all the small towns in NC that had become food deserts because of Walmart. That is WM moved in and out priced all the other stores causing them to close. Then WM closed. In some cases Dollar Shithole moved in. In others nothing.

    Anyway, I looked (briefly) for the article but couldn’t find it. But this one is about one town, and representative:

    Hurrah, I have joined the club and been put in moderation. I no longer feel like an outsider..

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Oh, for sure. But as noted in the OP,

    But Walmart isn’t going into these “food deserts.” There’s not enough business there to make it profitable. So, surely, something other than Walmart explains the lack of grocery stores in these places?

    Maybe there are spillover effects I’m not seeing. And, as a general principle, I think we’ve consolidated some industries to the point where they have oligopoly power and am fine with regulators saying “Enough.” I’m just not seeing the specific harm being claimed.

  15. Mister Bluster says:

    A level playing field was long a tenet of U.S. antitrust policy.

    That’s easy enough. Everyone charge the same high price. That would be “level”, wouldn’t it!

  16. Matt says:

    @MarkedMan: That’s how Walmart and those types operate. Once they drive the local competition out of business they stop being nice and raise the prices while cutting staff. They also bully suppliers into giving them big discounts due to their numbers. I remember reading a detailed article on how walmart would browbeat suppliers into providing product at a near loss (I believe some items were at a loss) just so they could stay in business.

    This happened in Chicago after I moved apparently. When I was around that area walmart was non existent and there was a thriving community of local shops everywhere. Apparently most of those shops are closed now due to walmart moving in. That same walmart is now pulling out leaving a complete vacuum….

    @Gavin: Indeed we’re seeing that in many market sectors. Gaming has been hit particularly hard by it as NVidia and AMD are the only real game in town for graphics cards (Intel is making inroads). Nvidia has decided they’d like to use their near monopoly to sell cards that are slightly better performing but cost more each than the prior generation. Outside of the 4090 card the 40 series so far has been roughly the same performance as the prior generation at a much higher price. AMD is following along because profits braw…

    All the brands in the USA are basically owned by a handful of corporations. Competition is basically non existent and the CEOs are starting to realize they won’t suffer consequences for raising prices. Because they can just blame “inflation” and those ebil demonrats for it. These are the people the GOP want to cut taxes for massively….

  17. Jen says:

    @Lounsbury: It’s “end stage capitalism.”

    “End stage” is the final phase of a terminal disease.

  18. Matt says:

    @James Joyner: Okay lets start in the 90s then
    That’s a clear example of walmart engaging in predatory pricing.

    Although in Walmart Stores, Inc. v. American Drugs, Inc the arkansas supreme court ruled that selling products at a loss isn’t considered predatory pricing. The term “loss leader” was applied very broadly to reach this conclusion.

    Here’s a link to Kraft talking about closing factories directly as a result of walmart.

    Moving to the more modern era.
    The book linked in the article provides the information you requested.

    I think at this point the spam filter is going to catch me so posting more links would be unhelpful. I haven’t even touched on the employment side of things…

    Walmart absolutely destroyed the one decently sized city in the county of my home town. I watched first hand as walmart’s pricing pushed locals out of business. Granted the store was beautiful and clean and well stocked for many years. Now? It’s dirty and barely staffed with much higher prices. Altogether the city itself even admits that there was a direct loss in jobs as a result of them courting walmart. Now you cannot even buy anything outside of walmart…

  19. Gustopher says:


    It’s “end stage capitalism.”

    “End stage” is the final phase of a terminal disease.

    It’s really very optimistic to think this is end-stage, and that there isn’t another, worse stage on the horizon.

  20. Gustopher says:

    (And “inflation” isn’t an “excuse” for higher prices; it’s a measure of prices.)

    Covid supply chain issues caused prices to spike, and then as the supply chain started chugging along companies didn’t drop the prices, they just pocketed the profits, and cited “inflation.”

    That’s the argument anyway. I’d want to see someone dig into the numbers on corporate profits before I take that as gospel, but the mechanism is straight forward if there isn’t a lot of competition.

    According to Elizabeth Warren, corporate profits are up, but I haven’t checked to see if she was referring to a particular sector or what caveats she put in. I heard, nodded, said “a-yup, big companies screwing us over, what else is new?” and went in my merry way.

    (I trust her, but… she might be focusing on one part of a larger story, I might have tuned out after she confirmed my biases, etc)

  21. Gustopher says:

    But this has been happening over the course of half a century, a period that, until COVID broke everything, was marked with essentially no inflation

    A lot of inflation was hidden.

    First, the official numbers use a basket of goods that changes, assuming that if the cost of beef rises, families will just buy chicken. I can see the logic behind that, as it does reflect what families will pay, but it doesn’t really measure the increase in the cost of goods.

    Second, we have had a lot of “shrinkflation” where products are just getting smaller. Hard to do with beef sold by the pound, easy to do with toothpaste, frozen Mac and Cheese, or deodorant.

    Third, we’ve had a change in ingredients and processes to cut costs, often to the detriment of the consumer. Sugar is replaced by high fructose corn syrup. More water is added to soup. Less salmonella is washed from the chicken.

    All together, you’re paying more for smaller amounts of worse products. Which just becomes an old Borscht Belt joke.

  22. BugManDan says:
  23. Andy says:

    Yes, well, it’s pretty obvious that size does matter.

    Large retailers (whether they sell groceries or something else) are able to distribute more products at better prices thanks to scale and logistics. At least for now.

    Smaller companies have to specialize. One example is Ace Hardware, which has succeeded despite competition from big box stores (Lowes, Home Depot) and Walmart.

    As with everything else, there are always tradeoffs. Consumers generally prioritize price and convenience, which is why Amazon and online retail are so successful.

    Groceries don’t fit that model yet, but things are slowly changing. Most people want to be able to touch the groceries they buy – to see the piece of meat, fruit, or vegetable with their own eyes and hands, before they buy it. They don’t – yet – trust a third party like Amazon to do that. Once that cultural change happens (assuming it does), the grocery market will fundamentally change, like so many others have. In our family, we already order about 1/5 of our stuff, because it’s not carried locally.

    Grocery delivery could be a boon to underserved locations and markets, just as it has been for many other things.

    Finally, the world isn’t static. In the US, there is a long history of established players getting beaten by small upstarts who fundamentally change the game. Two of those small upstarts are now Walmart and Amazon. They could very well be the next Sears or IBM.

  24. James Joyner says:


    Large retailers (whether they sell groceries or something else) are able to distribute more products at better prices thanks to scale and logistics. At least for now.

    Right. And, in principle, I don’t object to that and, in practice, I often benefit from it. The objection raised in the op-ed is that Walmart and a handful of other behemoths are so large that they can force suppliers to offer them goods at incredibly low margins that even merely large companies can’t get.

    Smaller companies have to specialize. One example is Ace Hardware, which has succeeded despite competition from big box stores (Lowes, Home Depot) and Walmart.

    Yes. When I lived across the county, the local Ace was famous far and wide for their selection of Weber grills and their outstanding customer service with regard to them. I bought one from them and then, a dozen or so years later, bought the replacement from them without seriously shopping around. A marginal $200 on a purchase that long was easily offset by confidence I was getting the right grill for my needs and their delivery and setup.

    A few months back, I bought a Stihl chainsaw from the Ace on this side of the county because, again, they’ve developed a local reputation for specialization. They’ll give you free troubleshooting and offer services like on-the-spot sharpening at reasonable prices. That’s a service worth paying extra for.

  25. Neil Hudelson says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’ve heard that a lot over the last 20 years but seen little evidence of it. In very small towns, Walmart isn’t going in. Places big enough to support a Walmart are big enough to support competing supermarkets.

    What is your definition of “very small?” The Wal-Mart in my hometown went in about 25 years ago. At the time the county had a population of 7,000, the town about 3,300. Currently its at 9,000/5,000. Pretty tiny–small enough that the three other grocery stores in the county capitol went out of business within a year. The two grocery stores in neighboring towns have stayed in business, though one has had to specialize as butcher/processing plant in order to keep going.

    I agree with a lot of your post that grocery prices are not being pushed up due to the Wal-Marts of the world, but the idea that Wal-Marts only go into large towns big enough to support multiple grocery stores is just not true. They go into towns big enough to support a Wal-Mart.

  26. James Joyner says:

    @Neil Hudelson: I don’t have aggregate data, only anecdotes. See my response to @Jen above, re: Troy, Alabama. It has managed to sustain multiple large and quite a few niche grocery stores despite a longstanding Walmart Supercenter.

  27. Kazzy says:


    So why didn’t competitors re-enter the market?

  28. DrDaveT says:

    By almost every conceivable measure, we’re more affluent than our Carter-era counterparts.

    If by “we” you mean the top 20% in wealth/income, then absolutely. No question about it. Life is better now than it was.

    If instead you mean the median American (or any lower quantile) then your statement is false. Real wages and wealth have been stagnant or falling (depending on where in the distribution you look) for decades now. Relative buying power has dropped even more, thanks to that affluence at the top that you cite. Which, perversely, helps to drive the populism that keeps the Republican party viable, even as those elected by R voters work feverishly to keep shifting wealth away from their electoral base into that upper tail…

  29. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: It’s certainly true that the relative distribution of wealth has concentrated. But by almost any absolute measure, the median and even 10h percentile citizen is more affluent. Even very poor people have smart phones and computers. Far more people can afford to eat out or take an airplane trip or vacation in the Bahamas. Or houses are bigger, our wardrobes larger, our diets more diverse, or cars more packed with technology and longer lasting, etc etc etc.