The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

11 December 2006

Take these chains from us

I once suggested that a Banana Republic store might be a good fit for Bricktown, and people looked at me as though I were proposing to tear down the Acropolis and replace it with a Long John Silver's. "There's one in Utica Square," I argued, but nobody wanted to hear about things that worked in Tulsa; the No Chains sign is up.

And that's not necessarily a good thing, says Virginia Postrel:

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 [Arizona] 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.

And yet we want those stores; we just don't want those names on them.

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?"

The argument is always "It would put our local retailers out of business," even if we have no such local retailers.

Meanwhile, the IHOP in the middle of Bricktown flourishes.

Posted at 9:21 AM to Soonerland

Nordstroms. We need a Nordstroms. BR has a store in Penn Square. You have to go to Dallas for a Nrodstroms

Posted by: Dwayne "the canoe guy" at 10:25 AM on 11 December 2006

I thought the elitists who thumb their noses at the GAPs et al were a product of the East/Left coasts' cultures. Obviously, such people are everywhere,

As I've said before, great cities aren't built, they're REbuilt. The elitists veiw a chain as the end of the world. Bur what they do is act as magnets. Little fish (businesses) feed off the leavings, and some of them thrive and become local institutions. But none of that happens without a beginning.

Mall owners are wiser than urban planners. Every mall knows it needs anchor stores to survive. They bring the business that keeps the doors open, because malls can't survive on "Just Buttons" and other unique but small shops to survive. The same is true of any urban downtown, no matter what the 'acyivists' claim.

Right now, there's a group fighting to keep WalMart out of the Bronx. The Bronx really, really, really needs a WalMart to jumpstart local business. The politicians know this, but they won't stand up to the pressure groups. WalMart shrugs, and builds in China, where they're wanted. Meanwhile, the Bronx continues to die of unemployment and crime. The activists continue to claim the real villain is WalMart, and they're perfectly OK with the consequences of their stance.

Posted by: Mister Snitch! at 3:50 PM on 11 December 2006

And when did urban planners become known for supporting only local establishments?

Posted by: Adrian at 4:38 PM on 11 December 2006

Most planners worthy of the name want the spaces filled, period; it's the local activist community which is seldom satisfied.

Posted by: CGHill at 5:22 PM on 11 December 2006

People who claim they hate chains because they have no "character" and want only "local businesses" to be in their shiny new revived downtowns are idiots who have no idea how reality works, never mind just the marketplace. They are also a lot richer than I am -- wealthy enough that they can ignore the fact that, thanks to how much it costs small businesses to start, that cute mom 'n' pop store and the darling boutique have to charge much more than the average chain does for whatever product they are peddling. I like cute shops too, and Orlando and environs is infested with them (and with "reviving" neighborhoods in old, historic neighborhoods I'd love to live in if they weren't all priced to draw in rich yuppies), but I do my real shopping at places like Walmart, because they have stuff I need at prices I can afford.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 8:33 PM on 11 December 2006

You're right, I shouldn't blame the planners. It's the 'activists' that are the problem. Sometimes, these groups do influence which planners are chosen, and knowing which side their bread is buttered on, skew their findings to suit. I've seen such people who apparently make their living as advisers testifying on behalf of pressure groups. Their testimony is fairly predictable, and always impractical.

Aside from such opportunists, you're right in saying that most planners want the spaces filled, and are apolitical re who fills them.

I had a conversation with someone earlier today on the different mindset of the 'elite' shopper and the WalMart shopper, applied to shoes. The elite shopper does not question the quality of the $1000 shoes. The elite shopper is concerned that their shoes convey their elite status, hopefully outstripping that of their peer group (but at least keeping pace). The WalMart shopper cannot conceive of spending $1000 on shoes. That $1000 has to be apportioned to a number of needs. The shoes have to run a more pragmatic gauntlet - Do they fit? Can I wear them with what I have? WIll they last? Are they comfortable?

This divide is why the group that wants to keep a WalMart out of town is not the group that needs it. Unfortunately, the former group has greater reasources and clout, and often prevail against the (almost always) larger group that would shop and work at a WalMart.

Posted by: Mister Snitch! at 1:00 AM on 12 December 2006