Disposable Retail

Posted Jan. 14, 2010, at 7:15 p.m.

The photograph in the Bangor Daily News’ Jan. 12 issue of the demolition of the former Wal-Mart store in Bangor highlights a disconcerting reality of modern retail economics. The notion of disposable buildings, of tossing the empty big box on the rubbish heap just 17 years after it was built, is offensive to many Mainers with our long-held Yankee frugality.

Wal-Mart is a convenient target for those who hate the big-box trend in retail. The company’s decision to walk away from one store site in Bangor in favor of another that accommodated a Supercenter reinforces what many don’t like about the world’s largest retailer, but it is far from alone in this trend.

Wal-Mart also can be seen as successfully pioneering an emerging trend in retail — the consolidation of products, from shoes to food, in one store. Fifty years ago many small Maine towns had several grocery stores. The move toward larger chains, such as Hannaford and Shaw’s, made good economic sense. The bigger chains have more buying power, resulting in lower prices, and the higher sales volume ensured fresher food. The consumers won in this evolution.

In the same way, Wal-Mart learned that consumers like to shop at one store for everything from plasma TVs and underwear to tires and fabric. The company’s success has come not in forcing market trends, but in capitalizing on them.

If there is a shame factor to the demolition of Bangor’s first Wal-Mart, which is making way for a new Lowe’s home improvement store, it is that it highlights a lack of long-range planning for the mall area of the city. Rather than a carefully planned commercial district, the mall and its surrounding areas are more akin to a mobile home park with structures coming and going. Retailers have been able to buy lots with access to Stillwater Avenue or Hogan Road and build new stores, and parking lots, curb cuts and traffic lights follow rather than the other way around.

Instead of replicating the seemingly haphazard development that Bangor has witnessed and allowed, other Maine towns such as Augusta, Rockland and Ellsworth could work to get it right.

For Bangor, the horse has long been out of the barn. A master plan that anticipated and allowed for orderly retail growth could have set standards for the stores so they were more likely to be reused than razed. It may not be too late for Bangor to nudge big-box retailers toward a development plan that resembles an industrial park with a dedicated entrance, like-sized lots, uniform signage and easy-to-follow traffic patterns.

After all, big-box buildings apparently have a life expectancy equal to that of a pickup truck.

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