Synopsis & Reviews of Big-Box Swindle

In less than two decades, large retail chains have become the most powerful corporations in America. In this deft and revealing book, Stacy Mitchell illustrates how mega-retailers are fueling many of our most pressing problems, from the shrinking middle class to rising pollution and diminished civic engagement—and she shows how a growing number of communities and independent businesses are effectively fighting back.

Mitchell traces the dramatic growth of mega-retailers —from big boxes like Wal-Mart and Home Depot to chains like Starbucks and Old Navy—and the precipitous decline of independent businesses. Drawing on examples from virtually every state in the country, she unearths the extraordinary impact of these stores and the big-box mentality on everything from soaring gasoline consumption to rising poverty rates, failing family farms, and declining voting levels. Along the way, Mitchell exposes the shocking role government policy has played in the expansion of mega-retailers and builds a compelling case that communities composed of many small, locally owned businesses are healthier and more prosperous than those dominated by a few large chains.

More than a critique, Big-Box Swindle provides an invigorating account of how some communities have successfully countered the spread of big boxes and rebuilt their local economies. Since 2000, over 200 big-box development projects have been halted by groups of ordinary citizens, and scores of towns and cities have adopted laws that favor small-scale, local business development which limit the proliferation of chains. From cutting-edge land-use policies to innovative cooperative small-business initiatives, Mitchell offers communities concrete strategies that can stave off mega-retailers and create a more prosperous and sustainable future.


Big-Box Swindle is No. 9 on the San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller List for the week of Nov. 9, 2008.

“Mitchell does an engrossing job … one of the most informative books yet published on how chain stores expand and on the damage to communities and the built environment.” — Philip Langdon, New Urban News, July/August 2008

Watch this online video of a roundtable discussion with authors Bill McKibben, Stacy Mitchell, and Michael Shuman at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in January 2008.

“Mitchell offers a comprehensive analysis of the social and economic costs of America’s infatuation with big-box retailers, as well as inspirational portraits of communities and independent businesspeople who have survived and thrived in the shadow of mega-companies.” — Minneapolis Observer Quarterly, Winter 2007

In the Oct. 15, 2007 issue, Booklist names Big-Box Swindle one of the top 10 business books of the year!

Big-Box Swindle is entitled its share of plaudits in line with earlier real estate muckraking books dating at least as far back as The Life and Death of Great American Cities.”
— Martin Zimmerman, Urban Land, July 2007

“Wal-Mart has been harvesting kudos for its dramatic ‘green’ promises. . . But author-activist Stacy Mitchell has tossed a firecracker into the Wal-Mart-environmentalist lovefest.” Read more.
— Neal Pierce, Washington Post Writers Group, June 24, 2007

“Mitchell has not written another screed against Wal-Mart. . . She has assembled a great deal of information which argues for the importance of local business. . .and for the destructive consequences of our big box, category-killer economy, from Wal-Mart to Bass Pro Shops to Victoria’s Secret.” Read more.
— Grant Alden, co-editor of No Depression, May 2007

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says Big-Box Swindle is one of the top 10 books of the year!

“Throws new light on some mega-retailers’ efforts to woo environmentally-conscious customers. . . It’s hard to see superstores as even pale green after reading Big-Box Swindle. . . a valuable read for anyone who covers growth and development or the impacts of large businesses.”
— Jennifer Weeks, Society of Environmental Journalists, SEJ Journal, Winter 2006

“. . . prodigiously researched, lucidly written. . .” Read the review.
— Marilyn Harris, Business Week SmallBiz, Winter 2006

“‘Big-Box Swindle’ is an eye-opener, especially as South Mississippians decide how to rebuild the Gulf Coast.”
—Scott Naugle, Biloxi Sun Herald, Dec. 31, 2006

“If you think the argument against the astoundingly fast spread of big box stores across America is simple or easily dismissed, try reading this. . . It is a polemic—one of the most powerful and useful of the year.” Read more.
Ridenbaugh Press, Dec. 25, 2006

“. . . a devastating critique of the social impact of big retailers on American life.” Read the full article, which was published with this excerpt from Big-Box Swindle.
— Peter Hetherington, The Guardian (London), Dec. 6, 2006

“. . . a galvanizing eye-opener that deserves the widest possible audience. This is one of those urgent, revelatory volumes that could change how many readers conduct their daily lives, since it illuminates a stunning collection of business outrages, government favoritism, environmental damages, hidden economic and societal costs, debunked myths and a rising swell of consumer activism against big-box blight. . . Big-Box Swindle could have been a downer to read, but Mitchell devotes the final quarter of her powerful book to. . . inspiring lessons from places that are turning the tide.” Read the full review.
—John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dec. 1, 2006

Listen to interviews with Stacy Mitchell on The Book Report, and on public radio stations in Maine, Seattle, Colorado, and Wisconsin.

“For a comprehensive indictment of big box retail development, look no further than Big-Box Swindle . . . This book makes its case effectively.”
Planning Magazine, Dec. 2006

“. . . goes beyond most similar condemnations of big retailers to outline just how their domination is dangerous to society — and then moves to show how citizens are fighting the phenomenon. . . an important acquisition for any public or college-level library. . . ”
The Midwest Book Review, Dec. 2006

“Mitchell details the negative economic, social and environmental impact of big boxes, along with case studies of local communities that succeeded in repelling supersize developments.” Read the full review.
—Cydney Gillis, RealChange News, Nov. 30, 2006

“There remain some publishers willing to fade the book-chain heat; we have Beacon Press to thank for Mitchell’s indeed fine and important book.. . .Big-Box Swindle is a historical, economic, and political study of the major international chain-store corporations and their long-term debilitating effects on local economies. . . Perhaps more importantly. . . Mitchell also traces the growing network of citizen and business activism aimed at counteracting the power of the chains and communicating the value—in economic, political, and cultural terms–of locally owned businesses.” Read the full review.
— Michael King, Austin Chronicle, Nov. 24, 2006

“Mitchell marshals remarkable statistics. . . and telling anecdotes to compellingly document the nefarious impact of mega stores.” Read more.
—Paul Demko, Minneapolis City Pages, Nov. 8, 2006

Big-Box Swindle was selected as a November Book Sense Pick!

“. . .packed with detailed research and anecdotes strong enough to spin even the most ardent skeptic. . .” Read more.
—Sara Donnelly, Portland Phoenix, Nov. 8, 2006

“[Mitchell] raises issues that Chicago’s big-box debate hasn’t touched.” read more.
—Harold Henderson, Chicago Reader, Nov. 1, 2006

“. . . [a] fine, inspiring, rabble-rousing book. . .” read more.
—Amy Stewart, North Coast Journal, Oct. 26, 2006

“. . . a well-written and informative book.” read more.
—Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret Morning News, Oct. 15, 2006

“Across the U.S., large retail chain stores have created a monoculture of automobile-based shopping, driving out independently owned businesses and decimating downtown shopping districts. The numbers are staggering—Wal-Mart, the big gorilla, now receives 10 percent of American’s spending dollars, and Home Depot gobbles up nearly half of all home improvement sales. Mitchell, an advisor to communities on retail development and independent business, compares these companies’ tactics to European colonialism—they enter a community and plunder its resources, rather than adding value and enhancing the local economy. Gobbling up land, creating sprawl and even knocking down historical landmarks in their quest for total dominance, these powerful corporations let nothing stand in their way. From a shrinking middle class to diminished culture and landscape, the effects of the big-box retailers are far reaching, but Mitchell has uncovered a movement to curb the proliferation of the mega-retailers and create policies that favor local enterprises. Her call to action reveals the hidden costs of those “low prices” promoted by the big-box bullies and gives hope to local entrepreneurs and concerned citizens alike.” (David Siegfried)
Booklist, Oct. 15, 2006 (boxed and starred review)

“Mitchell, chair of the American Independent Business Alliance, has produced a compelling indictment of Wal-Mart and other “big box” stores, based on numerous national examples. Deep-pocketed chains like Home Depot flood the market to drive out competition, she points out, then advertise some products at or below cost, while most other products may offer no better value than at independent stores. Meanwhile, she argues, independent businesses not only return profits to local communities and remain more civic-minded and accountable, but offer resiliency rooted in diversity, in contrast to the big-box “monocrop.” She even provides evidence that Wal-Mart lowers, rather than boosts community economic well-being, and that firms with fewer than 100 employees give twice as much in charity per employee as those with more than 500 workers. Mitchell challenges Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory, suggesting that an indie bookseller’s passion about a product can be more critical to its sales than wide access via a Web retailer. Mitchell catalogues diverse ways indie-minded consumers can fight back, by campaigning against government subsidies to big-box stores, and advocating for sales tax collection on Internet sales and stronger antitrust enforcement. Visible citizens’ coalitions can fight big-box expansion, especially if communities fine-tune their land use policies. The big-box trend, she suggests, can be countered by increasing public awareness.”
— Publishers Weekly, Sept. 11, 2006

“Well-written and well-documented.”
Future Survey, Sep. 9, 2006

“Here is the definitive indictment of Wal-Mart and its ilk: how local retailers, family farmers, factory workers—and democracy itself—have been steamrolled by the illusion of big-box ‘progress.’ Mitchell catalogs how government policies such as development subsidies, state tax loopholes, and no anti-trust enforcement have stacked the deck. Deftly weaving history, sociology and a crash course on retail economics with affectionate snapshots of tenacious entrepreneurs, Mitchell leaves us with an optimistic vision informed by promising new community initiatives.”
—Greg LeRoy, author of The Great American Jobs Scam and executive director of Good Jobs First

“This is the ultimate account of the single most important economic trend in our country—the replacement of local businesses, and all they represent, with the big boxes. What Nickel and Dimed did for the Wal-Mart worker, Stacy Mitchell does for the community threatened by mega-retailers.”
— Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

“Stacy Mitchell provides an astonishing exposé of the broad-reaching implications of our shopping habits. Big Box Swindle should be required reading for everyone who cares about America’s main streets, as well as a call to arms to small businesses everywhere to organize and take action.”
— Kennedy Smith, former director of the National Main Street Center

“Through rich, real-life stories, Stacy Mitchell reveals that those ‘low prices’ so proudly promoted by big-box behemoths come at an intolerably high cost to our communities and culture. Can we beat the behemoths? Yes! And Mitchell shows us the way. Read on, take heart, and take action!”
— Jim Hightower, national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and best-selling author

“A well-researched and frightening book about an economic pandemic engulfing the United States…The big boxes are draining cities and towns of money and bankrupting neighborhood businesses that have long been the backbone of American communities. Big-Box Swindle is a book every citizen needs to read.”
— Ben Bagdikian, author of The New Media Monopoly

“A great read! The big-box shadow looms over us mightily, but, as Stacy Mitchell documents, hundreds of communities have already saved themselves. She tells us how they did it and firmly invites us to step forward into the light. Change-a-lujah!”
— Reverend Billy, leader of the Church of Stop Shopping