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As dollar stores spread across the nation, crime and safety concerns follow

Dollar stores are one of the bright spots in America’s ailing brick-and-mortar retail industry: These discount retailers will represent one-third of all new store openings in the U.S. this year. Their ubiquity, however, is prompting questions about their low-cost operations, impact on communities and worker safety.

The stores, which sell items for $1 each or slightly higher, provide communities with much-needed discount products, ranging from household staples like groceries to Halloween decorations. But workers and labor advocates are increasingly warning that the cheap items come at a price for their communities.

Some of these issues were raised after last month’s racially motivated attack at a Jacksonville, Florida-based Dollar General store, when a White man killed a 19-year-old employee and two customers. All three victims were Black. The gunman took his own life. The incident occurred after the attacker had earlier driven to a Family Dollar store, according to Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters, who noted that the man had previously worked at a Dollar Tree.

The shooter may have targeted dollar stores because “it doesn’t appear that he wanted to face anyone who would cause him issues,” said Waters said in a press conference last month.

Easy targets

Many dollar stores are sparsely staffed, sometimes with only a single worker manning the register, and lack security guards or staffers at entrances, according to workers and experts. As a result, the stores have gained a reputation for being easy targets for criminals who believe they can “just walk in and get money from the cash register,” said Kennedy Smith, a researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, at a panel about dollar stores earlier this year.

“I know several assistant managers, including myself, that any given Sunday, you were alone,” former Dollar General employee Kenya Slaughter, who worked for the retailer for more than four years and now organizes discount store workers for labor advocacy group Step Up Louisiana, told CBS MoneyWatch. “No one should be in the store alone.”

Working for Dollar General was often “chaotic,” Slaughter said, adding that while she was never robbed, she faced issues like customers fighting in the store and using drugs, as well as theft. “This is a billion-dollar company that could afford more security.”

Dollar General to donate $2.5 million and remodel storeQueens Dollar Tree shut down because of rat infestation

Dollar General on September 4 said it willdonate $2.5 million to local charities and worker relief efforts in wake of the Jacksonville shooting. In a response to CBS MoneyWatch, the company noted,Like most small box retailers, there may be times during the day when our stores have single coverage.”

“However, our policies and procedures require the presence of multiple associates at certain times of day, including at closing,” it said.

Dollar Tree didn’t return a request for comment.

Dollar General and rival Dollar Tree, which operates the Dollar Store and Family Dollar chains, notched a combined $33.7 billion in sales during the first six months of 2023. Both chains are profitable, with Dollar General earning almost $1 billion through the first half of the year, and Dollar Tree earning $740 million. Dollar stores are benefiting as more customers seek bargains after a bruising year of high inflation, analysts note.

In 2023, Dollar General is slated to open 1,009 new stores, the most of any U.S. retailer, according retail data provider Coresight. Dollar Tree plans to open another 636 stores, meaning that the two chains combined will represent about one-third of all new store openings in the U.S. this year.

Increase in thefts

About 84% of Dollar General workers earn $14 or less per hour, according to an analysis from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Workers and labor advocates have been pushing for better pay and security, with one Family Dollar employee, Neil Orgeron, noting that he’s started carrying a pocket knife because of his safety concerns.

“It’s even harder to pay rent on time with the small amount of money they give us, along with not having the property security in our stores,” he said on the panel about working conditions at dollar stores earlier this year.

To be sure, rising crime is an issue impacting all retailers, not just dollar stores, noted Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at Global Data. For instance, Target’s CEO earlier this year noted that “violent” incidents are on the rise at its stores, as well as an increase in theft.

But budget-friendly retailers are often “a particular target for crime as they are often staffed by only one or two people, so would be criminals feel they’re a softer target,” Saunders said. “Working alone, especially late in the evening, at a rural store is not something many will feel entirely comfortable with.”

150 gun deaths

Between 2014 and 2021, more than 150 people were killed by guns at dollar stores, while another 329 injured, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, citing data from the Gun Violence Archive.

Additional gun deaths and injuries have occurred since 2021 at dollar store locations. In August alone, seven people died in gun violence at dollar store locations, including the three deaths at the Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Other people have been injured due to gun violence at discount stores, including in aDollar General shooting in Palmdale, California, last month. Also in August, two people were shot Walmart locations, though there were no gun-related deaths, the database shows.

“Of course, the fact there are so many dollar stores across the country means that robberies at them is disproportionate,” noted Saunders of Global Data.

Advocates are pressuring dollar stores to invest more in their workers and security. Shareholders in May approved a measure to create an independent audit of worker safety and well-being. But Saunders noted that Dollar General may not want to spend too much due to to financial concerns. Dollar General CEO Jeff Owens said on an investor call last month that the company will spend an additional $150 million in labor this year.

“Dollar General might do a few more things, but it is not going to dig too deep at the moment as profits are under pressure and it won’t want to take the hit to the bottom line,” Saunders said.

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