Wal-Mart. Kmart. Target. Home Depot. These big box stores–and many others– exist in communities across the US and are increasingly popular abroad, too. Sure, they’re cheap and convenient. But they’re running small businesses into the ground. Ready to kick the big box habit? Here’s why and how.

Photo: djlicious

A few Christmases ago, my brother and I dragged my husband along on a midnight trip to Wal-Mart. My brother had an inside tip that laptops were going on sale. If we lined up at midnight, we could each score a cheap computer.

My husband had never been to Wal-Mart, and he looked on with curiosity and sadness as shoppers started fighting about the laptops and tore into plastic wrapped pallets piled high with electronics deemed off-limits until the magic hour of the sale. Shoppers cursed one another, cried, and collapsed in the aisles from emotional exhaustion. “This place is psychotic,” he said. “I wouldn’t take a laptop even if they gave it to me.”

Last November, a temporary employee at a Long Island, New York Wal-Mart was killed when he was trampled by stampeding customers surging into Wal-Mart to take advantage of post-Thanksgiving sales. According to news reports, no one stopped to help Jdimytai Damour or three other customers who were injured.

It wasn’t the first such incident at the chain store:

If you’re not convinced that shopping at big boxes might be dangerous for your own health and well-being, here are a few other reasons why you might consider breaking the big box shopping habit:

1. Big boxes aren’t renowned for upholding employee rights.

While the big box chains vary in terms of their labor rights records, Wal-Mart has a long history of violating labor rights of workers at home and abroad.

2. Big boxes tend to overlook their impact on local economies.

While big boxes may well improve employment prospects in many communities, their presence tends to drive other businesses into the ground. Open extended hours or 24 hours, they offer the customer convenience that a Mom and Pop store usually can’t provide. Their chain status permits them to stock a wider variety of inventory. Smaller businesses just can’t compete, as local business owners share in this documentary.

3. Big boxes don’t usually offer the in-depth knowledge and expertise that small businesses provide.

Ever gone to Home Depot and asked an employee how to find an obscure tool or how to use it? Could he or she answer your question? The answer is probably no: most of the employees at big box stores aren’t specialists in the products the store sells. At small businesses, though, the owners and employees tend to know a lot more about the products they’re selling, and they’re generally happy to tell you about them and take the time to answer your questions.

So how do you break the big box habit?

1. Start small.

If you’re a regular customer at a big box store, don’t vow to go cold turkey overnight. Weaning yourself off any habit is best done in baby steps.

2. Map your shopping habits.

What are the products you buy most frequently? Once you’re aware of the broad categories of items you purchase regularly, you can start looking for independent businesses where you can buy these same items.

3. Start developing relationships with small businesses.

Small business owners tend to care about their customers. They’ll happily special order an item for you, tell you about a product and its uses, and even give you special updates about products you buy regularly. Use the Internet and talk to friends to find out what small businesses exist in your community.

4. Stop believing that small businesses charge more than big boxes.

There’s a common misperception that big boxes offer value compared to small businesses. While this is sometimes the case, it’s often the opposite. That coupon you use at Wal-Mart requires you buy two jars of mayonnaise or three packs of toilet paper to get a meager discount. Do you really need two jars of mayonnaise?

5. Start extending your small business mindset beyond daily purchases.

Once you’ve kicked your big box habit, start thinking about the ways you can extend your support of small, independent businesses beyond daily purchases. If you’re planning a trip, for instance, do research to find local guides, food markets, and locally-owned lodging.

Community Connection:

For a more philosophical take on reasons to go local, check out Josh Kearns’ article, “How Local Self-Reliance Will Overthrow the System.” And if you’re kicking the big box habit, share your progress–and your advice–below.