Chain vs. independent stores in HoustonVirginia Postrel has an interesting article in The Atlantic titled "In Praise of Chain Stores" (the link will only work for another couple days for non-subscribers). First, excerpts, then my thoughts on Houston.
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.”Even though I think this article mounts an admirable defense of chains (and I have nothing against them), it's still nice to have a lot of independents mixed in for variety - and I think Houston actually does pretty well with independent stores, especially restaurants. Sure, plenty of the most successful independents grow up to be chains (Pappas, anyone?), because if you can succeed in Houston's super-competitive market, you can probably succeed anywhere. Our lack of zoning creates an easier environment for independents by enabling plenty of affordable retail space (yes, usually in the much-maligned strip center). In other cities, two forces work against independents:
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.
Contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites, most cities don’t exist primarily to please tourists.
...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?”
- Zoning constrains available retail space, and chains can generally pay a lot more than independents can, so they squeeze out independents.
- Permitting boards fear empty retail space, so they're more likely to approve developments anchored with stable, national chains that aren't likely to go out of business.