Mercantiles: A Promising Alternative to Big Boxes

Updated September 5, 2008

The debate about the pros and cons of Wal-Mart and other large-scale corporate retailers in communities across Vermont — and the real costs and benefits of Big Boxes — is complex and controversial. Most people agree, however, that Vermont must welcome and carefully plan for growth and economic development.
So how can communities interested in protecting their economic interests, unique downtowns, and irreplaceable natural resources provide consumers access to quality, discounted products without sacrificing their local economy or character.

Retail mercantile stores are a great solution.

Mercantiles are community owned stores designed to fill specific local needs. If consumers are looking for access to dry goods, apparel, appliances or other more specialized goods, mercantile stores provide an opportunity for communities to individually design, support, and provide shoppers access to quality products at discounted prices. This retail ‘flexibility’ stands in stark contrast to Big Box corporate retailers which respond to the needs of distant shareholders who often don’t understand or care about the unique needs of a community.
Mercantiles strengthen the communities in which they operate by:

  • Providing the consumer and social benefits of locally owned and operated businesses while simultaneously offering discounted goods.
  • Keeping money circulating in the community.
  • Increasing local control by allowing community members to influence product selection, quality control, and the future of the business.
  • Providing quality customer service.
  • Filling vacant buildings, thereby increasing the property values of the surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Providing livable wage jobs.
  • Contributing to the local tax base.
  • Educating the general public — particularly young people and influential community members — about the nature and benefits of co-operation and buying from a locally owned business.

Where Are Mercantiles Working?

Communities across the nation are increasingly turning to locally owned mercantiles as a solution to help strengthen the vitality of their downtowns while filling an important public need. Mercantiles are finding success in locales with populations ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 people. In Ely, Nevada, and Powell, Wyoming, for instance, efforts by the local business community and concerned citizens launched and grew successful discount stores. In Greenfield, Massachusetts, where citizens more than a decade ago rejected a proposed Wal-Mart, community leaders have drafted a business plan and will soon begin raising the needed capital from western Massachusetts residents to launch a community-owned mercantile there. Citizens in Saranac Lake, New York are also working on launching a community-owned department store. Read all about their efforts to bring reasonably priced dry goods to consumers through this homespun effort at


Does this Big Box alternative interest you?

If you would like to learn more about a growing network of people who are beginning to gauge the interest, needs, and opportunity for mercantiles to meet the needs of Vermont communities, please contact Vermont Natural Resources Council’s Sustainable Communities Program Director at 802-223-2328 ext 114 or