Dollar Store Economy:

Reproducing Inequality within the Organization of Retail Service Work

Tracy L. Vargas


This dissertation is the first ethnographic study of dollar stores within the field of sociology. My research was animated by a series of interwoven questions about service work, class, and poverty from the specific standpoint of low-wage retail employment at Dollar General. To gain insight into the lived experiences of the working poor and their customers, the following questions guided this project: First, what central features characterize the organization of dollar store service work? How does this organization of work influence everyday intra-class relations amongst poor store managers, workers, and customers? Second, how does unpacking the category of ‘management’ help to better understand the organization of dollar store service work and its service exchanges? Finally, how does this analysis help illuminate our understanding of the ‘dollar store economy’ and the process of profiting off of the poor/increasing economic inequality? My findings revealed that Dollar General’s organization of work was characterized by scientific management, a high degree of employee estrangement, narrow time restrictions, bare-bones payroll allocation, and flexible scheduling, which compounded the exploitation of its low-wage workforce while instigating policy infractions and errors. Employees were also treated as liabilities and considered to be profit risks to the corporation’s bottom line. Through inadequate training, low payroll, harsh policies, and intense technological surveillance, dollar store workers were recast into suspects through a process I call employee criminalization. On the shop floor, store employees exercised their daily frustrations laterally onto poor customers, resulting in tense, volatile service encounters. In retaliation, customers argued with and insulted dollar store employees, trashed store shelves, and reported them to corporate. Ultimately, I argue that my dissertation’s findings and analysis demonstrate how intra-class inequality, at least in part, is reproduced through the organization of low-wage service work.