Newly released results from a study conducted by researchers from Penn State, New Mexico State, and Michigan State have pinpointed a correlation between the number of big box stores in a county and the number of local hate groups. This correlation appeared more significant than other area characteristics usually associated with hate groups, such as the unemployment rate, high crime rates and low education. The study, published online in the "Social Science Quarterly" on April 4, 2012, used counts of hate groups provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center for each of the over 3,000 U.S. counties in 2007. The researchers paired these stats with the number and location of Wal-Mart stores from 1998. It was felt that this lapse of time between the two data sets provided sufficient time for the store's presence to affect its host community.
Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural economics and regional economics at Penn State, and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development said that the researchers chose Wal-Mart specifically for their study because of the readily available data on the stores, but it did not mean that they are the only big box retailers directly involved in this phenomenon. The researchers did seek perhaps to soften the perceived blow to Wal-Mart's image by stating, “We doubt strongly that Wal-Mart intends to create such effects or that it specifically seeks to locate in places where hate groups form,” I don't think the statement will be enough for the good folks at Wal-Mart. I'm pretty sure this study will result in their getting their corporate shorts in a knot. I'm also pretty sure that, while these stats are specifically relevant to the U.S., Canada should be paying attention to them as well. We are so often so similar to our neighbours to the south.
The study's authors have an interesting hypothesis to explain the correlation between Wal-Mart's presence and hate groups. They posit the likelihood that local merchants may find it difficult to compete against large retailers like Wal-Mart and therefore be forced out of business. These local business owners, however, are so often members of community and civic groups, such as the Kiwanis, an organization that describes itself as "a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world one child and one community at a time.". Losing members of such groups, which help to promote civic engagement may cause a drop in community cohesion, according to Goetz. Big box retailers are generally nothing more than a large, anonymous source of lower-priced merchandise.
The researchers suggest that retailers such as Wal-Mart should use this study to find ways to play a role in supporting local groups that can foster stronger social and economic ties in a community. Perhaps they should give some thought to taking their corporate image through a one-eighty, from the chain that rolls back prices to the chain that seeks first and foremost to contribute to changing the world, one host community at a time.