Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"In Praise of Chain Stores"

There is a really good article in the December 2006 edition of The Atlantic Monthly written by Virginia Postrel. It begs the question: How much of PARD's vision for Pullman is the perpetuation of a non-(and never-) existent myth?
They aren’t destroying local flavor—they’re providing variety and comfort

Every well-traveled cosmop­olite knows that America is mind-numbingly monotonous—the most boring country to tour, because everywhere looks like everywhere else,” as the columnist Thomas Friedman once told Charlie Rose. Boston has the same stores as Denver, which has the same stores as Charlotte or Seattle or Chicago. We live in a “Stepford world,” says Rachel Dresbeck, the author of Insiders’ Guide to Portland, Oregon. Even Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, she complains, is “dominated by the Gap, Anthropologie, Starbucks, and all the other usual suspects. Why go anywhere? Every place looks the same.” This complaint is more than the old worry, dating back to the 1920s, that the big guys are putting Mom and Pop out of business. Today’s critics focus less on what isn’t there—Mom and Pop—than on what is. Faneuil Hall actually has plenty of locally owned businesses, from the Geoclassics store selling minerals and jewelry, to Pizzeria Regina (“since 1926”). But you do find the same chains everywhere.

The suburbs are the worst. Take Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix. At Chandler Fashion Center, the area’s big shopping mall, you’ll find P. F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and the Cheesecake Factory. Drive along Chandler’s straight, flat boulevards, and you’ll see Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens-n-Things; Barnes & Noble and Borders; PetSmart and Petco; Circuit City and Best Buy; Lowe’s and Home Depot; CVS and Walgreens. Chandler has the Apple Store and Pottery Barn, the Gap and Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and DSW, and, of course, Target and Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald’s. For people allergic to brands, Chandler must be hell—even without the 110-degree days.

One of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Chandler is definitely the kind of place urbanists have in mind as they intone, “When every place looks the same, there is no such thing as place anymore.” Like so many towns in America, it has lost much of its historic character as a farming community. The annual Ostrich Festival still honors one traditional product, but these days Chandler raises more subdivisions and strip malls than ostrich plumes or cotton, another former staple. Yet it still refutes the common assertion that national chains are a blight on the landscape, that they’ve turned American towns into an indistinguishable “geography of nowhere.”

The first thing you notice in Chandler is that, as a broad empirical claim, the cliché that “everywhere looks like everywhere else” is obvious nonsense. Chandler’s land and air and foliage are peculiar to the desert Southwest. The people dress differently. Even the cookie-cutter housing developments, with their xeriscaping and
washed-out desert palette, remind you where you are. Forget New England clapboard, Carolina columns, or yellow Texas brick. In the intense sun of Chandler, the red-tile roofs common in California turn a pale, pale pink.

Stores don’t give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do. Familiar retailers may take some of the discovery out of travel—to the consternation of journalists looking for obvious local color—but by holding some of the commercial background constant, chains make it easier to discern the real differences that define a place: the way, for instance, that people in Chandler come out to enjoy the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools.

Besides, the idea that America was once filled with wildly varied business establishments is largely a myth. Big cities could, and still can, support more retail niches than small towns. And in a less competitive national market, there was certainly more variation in business efficiency—in prices, service, and merchandise quality. But the range of retailing ideas in any given town was rarely that great. One deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one. A hardware store was a hardware store, a pharmacy a pharmacy. Before it became a ubiquitous part of urban life, Starbucks was, in most American cities, a radically new idea.

Chains do more than bargain down prices from suppliers or divide fixed costs across a lot of units. They rapidly spread economic discovery—the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work. That knowledge can be gained only through the expensive and time-consuming process of trial and error. Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals. Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain. When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler—or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles—didn’t have much in the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at the L.A. Daily News declared it “the kind of place every neighborhood should have.” So what’s wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood CPKs instead of one or two?

The process of multiplication is particularly important for fast-growing towns like Chandler, where rollouts of established stores allow retail variety to expand as fast as the growing population can support new businesses. I heard the same refrain in Chandler that I’ve heard in similar boomburgs elsewhere, and for similar reasons. “It’s got all the advantages of a small town, in terms of being friendly, but it’s got all the things of a big town,” says Scott Stephens, who moved from Manhattan Beach, California, in 1998 to work for Motorola. Chains let people in a
city of 250,000 enjoy retail amenities once available only in a huge metropolitan center. At the same time, familiar establishments make it easier for people to make a home in a new place. When Nissan recently moved its headquarters from Southern California to Tennessee, an unusually high percentage of its Los Angeles–area employees accepted the transfer. “The fact that Starbucks are everywhere helps make moving a lot easier these days,” a rueful Greg Whitney, vice president of business development for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, told the Los Angeles Times reporter John O’Dell. Orth Hedrick, a Nissan product manager, decided he could stay with the job he loved when he turned off the interstate near Nashville and realized, “You could really be Anywhere, U.S.A. There’s a great big regional shopping mall, and most of the stores and restaurants are the same ones we see in California. Yet a few miles away you’re in downtown, and there’s lots of local color, too.”

Contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites, most cities don’t exist primarily to please tourists. The children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals are no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis. For them, this isn’t tourism; it’s life—the experiences that create the memories from which the meaning of a place arises over time. Among Chandler’s most charming sights are the business-casual dads joining their wives and kids for lunch in the mall food court. The food isn’t the point, let alone whether it’s from Subway or Dairy Queen. The restaurants merely provide the props and setting for the family time. When those kids grow up, they’ll remember the food court as happily as an older generation recalls the diners and motels of Route 66—not because of the businesses’ innate appeal but because of the memories they evoke.

The contempt for chains represents a brand-obsessed view of place, as if store names were all that mattered to a city’s character. For many critics, the name on the store really is all that matters. The planning consultant Robert Gibbs works with cities that want to revive their downtowns, and he also helps developers find space for retailers. To his frustration, he finds that many cities actually turn away national chains, preferring a moribund downtown that seems authentically local. But, he says, the same local activists who oppose chains “want specialty retail that sells exactly what the chains sell—the same price, the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes, the same brands, even.” You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with nothing but the name changed, he says, and they’ll love the store. So downtown stores stay empty, or sell low-value tourist items like candles and kites, while the chains open on the edge of town. In the name of urbanism, officials and activists in cities like Ann Arbor and Fort Collins, Colorado, are driving business to the suburbs. “If people like shopping at the Banana Republic or the Gap, if that’s your market—or Payless Shoes—why not?” says an exasperated Gibbs. “Why not sell the goods and services people want?”
HT: SK Peterson


66 Productions said...

Unfortunately, too many people feel that having a Starbucks, Chevron, Motel 6, and McDonald's at every off-ramp is all that they need to survive.

Along many older major US Highways (specifically stating that way ... these are different than limited access interstates) tourism did play a role. Look at rattlesnake farms and coffee pot diners along 66 and the Lincoln Highway as prime examples. Tourist-based businesses needed to draw in the tourist, and doing so was accomplished by being different.

This is what is lacking in today's TOURIST society. As much as I personally do not want to shop at a big chain, and would rather have my profit come back to my local economy as opposed to a millionaire somewhere else, the problem that I foresee is that once out on the road, you do not experience anything new with a quick drive-through lunch, a generic motel overnight, and gas stop in which you do not even interact with anyone else. At that point, what is the reason for travel?

"OK, kids, we are going to Boston for our summer vacation. We are going to stay in the Motel 6. We are going to eat at McDonald's. But at least we will get to see Fanueil Hall and Old North Church."

You know what, that is a great thing, being able to experience a part of history. But at the same time, you are missing the culture and heritage of the town by not experiencing the PEOPLE.

I'm constantly asked what it is about Route 66 that I love so much, and I will tell you what, it is NOT the Aztec Hotel, the old filling station on Shamrock in Monrovia, the Highland Theater, the Buffalo Inn, or Sycamore Grove Park. It is Kathie Reece, Kim Anderson, my friends on HPHT, meeting Kevin Hansel for a bite to eat, or recalling State Reunion Picnics of 60 years ago. It is the PEOPLE that define a region, and those people are not met in today's fast-paced, cookie-cutter culture.

April E. Coggins said...

As a traveler, I appreciate the franchise stores. I have some idea of what I can expect and they save me a great deal of time. When traveling in a limited time frame or with children, I find them essential. It is like having a favorite store everywhere I travel.

McDonalds, Motel 6 and the Chevron station are all individually and usually locally owned franchises. Franchises have the advantage of brand recognition, a business formula that works and usually offers a buying power that wouldn't be available to an independent store. I can't imagine how anyone would be able to tell how interesting someone might be based on whether that person owns a franchise or not. It seems like getting to know someone would be a better way.

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

Unless the franchises that have set themselves up along our nation's highways are also importing employees from your home town, I don't see how you're not going to meet new and different people at such locations.

Related to that, why do the people who live in these places owe it to anyone to limit their local economic development for some temporary visitor's personal aesthetic?

66 Productions said...

You don't "meet anyone" at a McDonald's drive-thru, a Chevron that you don't even talk to anyone, or a Motel 6 where you stay in your room. There is no local flavor there.

My point - completely valid - is that the old mom-and-pop establishments that were along the old highways and were tourism and service based made a point of being original and interesting, for that is how they made their income. Now, the income for tourism and service based commercial entities (at least in terms of gas, food, and lodging) is made by sameness, such as Starbucks, McDonald's, and Motel 6. This is not a means of getting local flavor in any way.

April E. Coggins said...

Apparently, "place" is very important to you. WHERE you meet someone is more important than who you might meet. Even worse, it seems that you don't consider the people who own or work at Motel 6 or McDonalds to be actual people, worthy of your conversation. So tell me, why would a housekeeper be more local when working at Mom and Pop's Roadside Inn but is no longer considered local flavor when she works for Motel 6? Is a dishwasher at Mabel's Diner more interesting than a dishwasher at Denny's? Will the order taker at Frank's Drivethru Burger stand take more time than the order taker at McDonalds?
I fail to see the difference.

66 Productions said...

The only instance you mention above in which most travelers would actually encounter someone is the last. So, like you guys have done in ignoring MOST of my points, I'll ignore the rest of yours, and address the one that I can logically refute.

The people in the drive thrus might have the same flavor. The time in them might be the same, too. But the person in the McDonald's will not have much to say about the menu, as it is the same everywhere. They will not have many recommendations for you. There will not be much in the way of extra conversation, because they will be sticking to their nationally planned campaign of speech.

Broadening that argument slightly, let me add that half of the reason that the big chains exist is so that you can get in and get out, knowing what you want, doing it efficiently and cheaply, and minimizing any interaction. You admitted that yourself earlier.

(I'm off to work now, at a locally owned, independent business. Where I actually get to interact with other people. And have real conversations. I'll tune back in tomorrow morning.)

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

We're not ignoring your points, just focusing on the really important one, and ignoring the inconsequential tangents and your personal preferences. Also, as for your stated, "completely valid" point, it's only valid in a contrived, hypothetical sense. You are framing this "problem" as if the immediate sides of the highway are the only places you can go, or that the types of establishments you prefer can exist. That is simply not the case.

Here's a point for you to consider: business exists to cater to customer demands. If the mom and pop shops you are so fond of are what people want, then those are what other people will provide. If the demand for such establishments really is that great, then they can and will thrive next to any chain shop or restaurant.

If your preferred style of eateries, boutiques, etc. are disappearing, it isn't your fault, but neither is it anyone else's fault, nor is it anyone else's responsibility to prevent it. The simple fact of the matter is that there are more people who want the chains to be there and there are not enough people to support the alternatives (unless there is, and as experience tells us, this frequently is the case, more often than the critics would like us - or themselves - to believe). This is a free market at work, driven by free people choosing what they will. It's a good thing.

If visiting the sort of establishments you favor is your preference, great, but it's just your preference, and other people have, and are entitled to, their own. If you don't like that, you're out of luck. Everyone is free to spend their money with the businesses they prefer. You should spend your money with the type of businesses you like and be happy with that. If you think there needs to be more of them, start your own, or work for one of them (which, by your own words, it sounds as if you do).

66 Productions said...

I took some time, thought about your points and arguments, and have to say, I largely agree with what you are saying. But for me, it comes down to two fundamental differences in opinion.

The first, which I think is largely indisputable, is the slow disappearance of the middle class in America. And I feel that large corporations such as Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and the others are a large part of that. More jobs at lower wages eats away at the lower middle class. More profit going to a select few raises the upper class further out of reach. For me, that is a problem.

The other fundamental issue relates to the link that you see for this blog entry of yours: individualism. For me personally, there is something to be said about walking into a place and having a different experience, about going somewhere that is NOT home. Exploration is a part of human nature, I believe, and that includes exploring places that others have been, but you have not. That is not something that can be done in a chain store, in my opinion, where efficiency is the order of the day.

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

Perhaps it is not disputable that the middle class is shrinking, but it is disputable as to why and what this really means. "Middle class" is an arbitrary term that is defined only by numbers, in this case dollars. As it goes, the middle class is shrinking because more people are earning more money, moving them into the "rich" category (for this same reason, the "poor" are also a shrinking class). If the numbers are adjusted for inflation - which is an issue of money supply and not necessarily quality of life - then the various groupings would perhaps remain more constant.

That big business growth of the type we're discussing could be responsible is absurd, in any case, and in the context of this discussion it is a red herring. The sorts of "low wage" jobs provided by places like Walmart, McDonald's et al. could not increase were it not for increasing disposable incomes elsewhere. Creating 1, 10, or even 10,000 new positions at Burger King does not somehow destroy a number of relatively high paying jobs somewhere else. Instead, it reflects a more widespread increase in purchasing power by a greater number of people, leading to the need of companies like Walmart and others to add new positions, new stores, etc.

So it can be easily refuted that the expansion of these sorts of opportunities "eats away at the middle class," since employment across industries is not a zero sum game. It could still "raise the upper class further out of reach," as you put it, but what does that mean? Are we all entitled to mansions? Should everyone have a Porsche? Should everyone have one million dollars placed into their checking accounts immediately?

This is chasing shadows. Quality of life is the key, and the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people in the U.S. have a great quality of life, and all but a very select few in this country have an amazing quality of life compared to the majority of the rest of the world.

Now, to get back to your post, and your second paragraph, yes, individualism is the key. But valuing individualism also means accepting that the non-coercive choices that others make must be respected and left alone. If enough of us decide to patronize one establishment over another, and if that choice leads to failure of the establishment selected against, you must leave us to our choice in peace. That doesn't mean you have no right to complain, but it must be recognized that no crime has been committed, and it would not be right to imply that any such thing has happened.

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

Scott -

I took a look through some of your photos on your blog, and I was struck by a thought about something that has destroyed many would-be empires, great and small, completely exclusive of the presence of big business: generational wanderlust.

How many of the places you've photographed closed down because the founding operators grew old and did not have children interested in continuing the business, or who did not have children at all? Such a thing can - and frequently does - destroy many small businesses (sometimes even very big ones).

This isn't to say that the cumulative choices of free people selecting a chain store over a mom and pop shop does not do away with some of these businesses, but I think there is far more to these stories than just the appearance of a McDonald's on the scene. How many of these places you've photographed simply gave way to the ravages of old age and disinterested children?

April E. Coggins said...

It's also possible and even likely that the children abandoned the old buildings to open new ones on the interstate. For the same reason people built on Route 66 (highway traffic), they are now building on the interstate. The businesses relocated with the traffic. An abandoned building only indicates that the building no longer serves a purpose and shouldn't necessarily indicate that someone has moved into poverty.

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

April - excellent point. Perhaps some of those former greasy spoon owners are now the proud owners of shiny Mcdonald's franchises.

April E. Coggins said...

Exactly, Paul! Businesses will change and adapt to suit the needs of the consumer, not the other way around. If business didn't evolve, there wouldn't be anything to reminisce over, lol.

How did you survive the windstorm? I don't think we suffered any damage but there are trees down all around us. Pullman Grill and Bar has a huge tree across it's back parking lot. KQQQ was reporting that there is a car under it.

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

No windstorm problems here, other than it's difficult to get out of my car with the wind pushing against the door, and our customers keep opening the wrong half of our double door (it hangs open with even the slightest breeze).

My internet connection at my house was taken out last night, just after I finished my entries here (woohoo!). We don't have any trees down around us though.

Did Russ give you the bottle of Pump-X and the brochure about it that I handed off to him at the dinner party? I need to come by your shop and tell you what it's all about. :)

April E. Coggins said...

Yes, I do have it. Stop in sometime and visit with us about the product.

J said...

Your blog caught my attention while I was researching the Chandler Ostrich Festival and after reading the comments I would like to point out that while the Ostrich Festival is unique, it is also a lesson about what happens to so many small businesses. The ostrich ranches and arms the Festival commemorates fell to the foibles of fashion when hats adorned with ostrich plumes were determined to be unsatisfactory for wearing in automobiles. Further, the ostrich ranches that have sprung up late in the 20th Century are waiting for chains like McDonalds to discover that ostrich meat makes great burgers that are also lower in fat and cholesterol. I'm not sure that a Festival honoring business miscues is a good example or role model for the advantages of individuality.

J. Hammond

Oh, anyone interested in additional details about the past and present of ostrich farming, particularly in Arizona can find an overview in "The Ostrich in Chandler's Ostrich Festival" at www.hotelsbycity.net/blog/usa_arizona_phoenix/2007/03/10/the-ostrich-in-chandler%e2%80%99s-ostrich-festival