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Consumer Redlining and the Reproduction of Inequality at Dollar General

Abstract

This paper extends our knowledge of consumer redlining by providing empirical evidence documenting its occurrence at Dollar General stores while also providing an explanation as to why it occurs in the first place. My data was primarily collected during six months of fieldwork working as a low-wage sales associate. It was also supplemented by additional participant observation at the eighteen other Dollar General stores in my fieldsite’s district and fifty in-depth interviews with coworkers and employees. My findings revealed significant disparities in store quality and customer service between the store locations I examined. Of the nineteen stores in the district, three standout stores emerged as the very worst. Conditions there were dirtier and more hazardous than the rest, with under-stocked shelves, slow customer service, and a contentious atmosphere for those who worked and shopped amidst the squalor. Therefore, I identified these stores as consumer redlined. My findings illustrate how the automated management of Dollar General’s labor supply undermined frontline managers’ authority and workers’ ability to resist precarious scheduling, contributing to the degradation of retail work. While algorithmic labor management standardized employer-driven “flexible” scheduling, the system also resulted in an unequal distribution of payroll hours amongst store locations. I argue that this automated scheduling system functioned to minimize labor cost and maximize profit, exacerbating the degradation of labor and instigating the reproduction of inequality—in this case, by generating consumer redlining. Additionally, my research shows how computer technology can intentionally undermine the power of frontline managers by automatic flexible scheduling, making it difficult to remedy the source of complaints at consumer-redlined stores: systemic understaffing.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Keyholders have managerial responsibilities such as opening and closing the store, performing register voids and merchandise returns, receiving food and beverages from vendors, resetting display shelves, changing prices according to the weekly sales, answering the phone, cleaning the restroom, dealing with inventory, and much more.

  2. 2.

    After exiting the field, I contacted each manager and coworker privately, beginning with lower-level workers and working my way to the top. I had a one-on-one conversation with each to explain my research interests and objectives, also explaining that I did not out myself until now because of the nondisclosure policy, risk of being fired, and upsetting upper management. I was truly overwhelmed by how understanding and supportive my coworkers were. Some scoffed and nodded, stating I could probably write a book about the place by now. Others raised concerns that I may be sued by Dollar General and asked me how I felt about that possibility.

  3. 3.

    This number includes employees who quit or were fired during my fieldwork.

  4. 4.

    See Fuller and Smith’s (1991) research on customer satisfaction (surveys), which highlight the use of customers to monitor, evaluate and discipline service workers.

  5. 5.

    Recovery involved moving all products on the shelves to the front edge with the labels facing outward in order to make merchandise more accessible for customers. It also consisted of collecting items that had been misplaced and returning them to their correct locations.

  6. 6.

    This is a newer, smaller format store, tentatively branded DGx, intended to serve busy, metropolitan shoppers.

  7. 7.

    A recently published CNN Business article cited my research (Vargas 2017) while informing on the growing concerns that DG has failed to protect store employees from violent crimes (Meyerson 2020). Security experts attribute these increased incidences of violence to a lack of instore security measures and some risky standard operating procedures, such as employees sometimes working alone and requiring store managers to make nighttime cash deposits.

  8. 8.

    ERC is the Employee Response Center. They assist store employees with technological and maintenance issues as well as reporting problems with coworkers and management.

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Acknowledgements

Tracy Vargas extendeds her sincere gratitude to her disseration advisor Gretchen Purser, Associate Professor in the Sociology Deapratment at Syracuse University. She also wishes to thank each of the revieweres who provided her with helpful comments and feedback in order to improve the final draft of this paper.

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Vargas, T.L. Consumer Redlining and the Reproduction of Inequality at Dollar General. Qual Sociol 44, 205–229 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-020-09473-w

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Keywords

  • Consumer redlining
  • Retail
  • Dollar store
  • Algorithms
  • Flexible scheduling