[N.B. I originally posted this on LinkedIn.]
Right now, I daresay the most important general in America is Dollar General.
In the BC era (before COVID-19) my family, like many families in rural America, exploited the availability of fast and cheap shipping to have our every whim delivered straight to our door. We had our choice of retailers to fulfill our orders. That all began to change rapidly once the quarantining began.
Before moving on to the present situation, let me explain why we weren’t just picking things up locally. I live in a small town nestled in the south end of a fairly large national forest. The closest Wal-Mart is nearly a 30 minute drive away. The closest Target is nearly an hour away. We have two fast food franchises, a locally-owned grocery store, and a Dollar General. I imagine throughout these United States that there are many similar communities. While we frequented our local Dollar General, they didn’t have the selection we’ve grown accustomed to, so much of our purchasing was done online.
We, like many others started seeing our shipments being delayed or completed cancelled in the past week or so. The last shipment we received from one of the large retailers was so hastily shipped that a couple of items were pretty banged up, but not too damaged to use. That source of supplies has essentially dried up. The online model of business, from my vantage point, is not working well in the current crisis.
Enter Dollar General. I’ve seen it said here in Alabama that we don’t measure driving speed by miles per hour, but by Shunnarahs per Dollar General. [N.B. for those who aren’t in the know, Alexander Shunnarah is an attorney whose visage is emblazoned across billboards throughout the state.] Dollar General has over 15,000 stores spread across 44 states1, compared to Wal-Mart’s 5,355 stores in all 50 states2. That’s roughly a Dollar General every ten miles or so down rural highways across America. In urban areas, they are even at closer intervals3. The rural areas are markets that aren’t served by Wal-Mart, or Target, or essentially anyone else; they aren’t large enough to warrant the investment. In larger towns, one might also see another dollar store franchise, and maybe even a non-“Super” Wal-Mart, but in across the country, Dollar General may be the only store in town.
So what does this have to do with COVID-19? Areas that aren’t on full lockdown are still being cautious. With mandated limitations on group sizes, larger stores are out of the question. With shopping curtailed and shipping handicapped, a trip to the local dollar store may be the only viable option.
Dollar General stores are by design smaller than a Wal-Mart or a Target. You can’t stuff as many people in a Dollar General, thus less opportunity for exposure. They may not have a great variety of stuff (and a limited selection of food), but chances are, they probably have what you need in the present crisis, unless it’s toilet paper. No one has toilet paper…
Until we are on complete and mandatory lockdown, there will be some amount of shopping going on. We must be judicious in where we shop until the present crisis passes. That being said, its only going to take one infectious person in any venue to spread the virus. This could have a huge impact on rural communities, because like Wal-Marts, hospitals are few and far between.
I’d like to end with praise to the unsung heroes of the present “conflict”. I want to express my gratitude to the cashiers and stockers who show up to work everyday facing unseen risk. I want to thank the folks handing food out the drive-through window because we still don’t want to cook for ourselves. They’ve been put in a situation that they didn’t spend years training for and aren’t making very much money to do. If you’ve been out in the past few days, you see how frazzled these folks are getting. Maybe in this current situation we should consider tipping for jobs that we don’t normally tip for?
There is another invisible group of heroes we need to recognize: the truck drivers and warehouse workers who keep the stuff flowing to the shelves. Without those vile, diesel guzzling behemoths on the road, we’d be in quite a pickle right now, wouldn’t we?
In closing, if Dollar General is the most important general in America, then our friends and neighbors on the other side of the register or behind the steering wheel are the enlisted troops fighting the battle for us. I don’t think most of us understand the criticality of their contribution in this battle. I, however, salute them.