March 05 2014

The Great Local vs. Chain Store Debate, as seen from Somerville, MA

It’s Sunday morning in Union Square, Somerville, located some twenty minutes by bus from downtown Boston. Should I get breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts, or at Union Square Donuts, which has hazelnut donuts? Should I get groceries at Target, or at Capone, a local deli? Should I get my prescription filled at Rite Aid or at….then I realized it is almost impossible to find a local, independently-owned pharmacy as an alternative.

Union Square, the oldest neighborhood in Somerville, has few chain stores and many small, diverse, local businesses. Nearby Davis Square, which has the only subway stop in Somerville, has many chain stores, and a livelier shopping and nightlife scene. Yet, which is the more “successful” neighborhood? Does “success” mean having a stronger business and commercial environment that typically attracts chain businesses, even if this means pricing out local, smaller stores because of higher rents? Or does “success” mean a diverse community with a strong sense of place, where the low commercial rents can accommodate local and pop-up stores, new ideas, and start-ups, though not many large businesses?

We buy silver and Elvis busts! Local shops in Davis Square, Somerville, MA

A Subway's, some local eateries, and an Eat Local sign in Union Square, Somerville, MAThe answer lies somewhere in the middle: the great local versus chain stores debate is much more complex than it first seems, as both types of businesses affect local economies differently.

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings - Jane Jacobs

Civic institutions, like Union Square Main Streets, encourage people to shop at local, independent stores as a way to boost the local economy, reduce environmental impact, and to highlight a community’s unique identity. Events like the Farmers’ Market, the Fluff Festival, and the Flea Market serve to boost the local economy, and support community branding and placemaking efforts.

Where to get Brazilian food in Union Square, Somerville, MA?

However, a lack of chain stores may also signal an area with relatively poor business conditions and a relatively low population base, conditions that make it unattractive for a chain business. This is particularly important to consider in more isolated, marginalized areas, especially those which are true “food deserts” (areas with low access to fresh, healthy food). Local and independently-owned businesses should also aim above all to offer superior products and quality service, and not just rely on people’s goodwill, nostalgia, and “shop local” efforts.

Chain businesses can bring many immediate and long-term benefits to a community, such as the ability to pay higher rents and taxes, offer consistent inventory and prices, and invest in new construction and remodeling. Chain businesses also have the advantage of economies of scale: a store that is not very profitable, or even one that loses money, can potentially afford to stay open because it is being subsidized by more profitable locations. In some cases, chain stores can attract foot traffic, encourage development of competing and complementary local businesses, and catalyze economic development and revitalization. However, chains also tend to have design and layout requirements that a community may want to discourage (suburban-style setbacks, one-story buildings, and large parking lots in front) and may lead, directly or indirectly, to the closure of local, independently-owned stores – a potentially disastrous scenario if the chain store eventually leaves the area.

Chain stores in Davis Square, Somerville, MA

A suburban-style supermarket next to a cemetery near Union Square, Somerville, MA

Ideally, a community should have a healthy mix of independently-owned local, quality businesses, as well as some revenue-generating chains. Ultimately, though, it all boils down to a simple question: how does a community define economic and social “success?” 

Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources. Many thanks to Mimi Graney (Union Square Main Streets) for her insights on this topic.

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderón

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon hails from Lima, Peru, a vibrant and noisy city with a rich history, ancient archaeological sites, Colonial churches, old art-deco cinemas, sprawling shanty towns (often decorated with posters in neon colours advertising a chicha or cumbia concert), glass skyscrapers, and a colorful public transportation systems that requires a sense of adventure, an instinct for navigation, and very short limbs to use successfully. She is a professional archaeologist who spent several years working in prehispanic and historical sites both in Lima and in northern Peru before coming to the United States, where she obtained a Master in Design Studies degree, with a focus on Critical Conservation, from Harvard University´s Graduate School of Design. She is currently based in the Boston area, where she combines her background and interest in archaeology with the study of how cities are formed and transformed, the nature and use of public spaces, adaptive and transformative reuse, and how can a city´s historical footprint, buildings and open spaces contribute to creating a sense of place and to inspire new urban design. Rosabella also enjoys exploring Boston and nearby towns on her beautiful 1975 blue folding bike and thinks of herself as “an archaeologist of the modern city”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 at 9:28 am and is filed under Branding, Community/Economic Development, Government/Politics, Land Use, Rosabella Alvarez-Calderón, Urban Development/Real Estate, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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2 Responses to “The Great Local vs. Chain Store Debate, as seen from Somerville, MA”

  1. Raghu Krishnan Says:

    It’s great there are only a few chain stores in the area. It shows an area can thrive without mega companies to provide sustenance. Honestly, I would be more against chain food places, except for Chipotle. Food is where more unhealthy shortcuts can be taken with no benefit to the community in terms of taste. But if there’s a target, cvs, rite aid, and the like then it can prop up the area with consistent economic benefits and providing the residents with qualified products at a lower cost. Can an independent store owner guarantee the quality of their product from their supplier/distributor? Maybe not. But if they can and function outside of the normal hours of these chains they will attract a generous number of people to their stores, in spite of having higher prices. It could be due to their proximity or accessibility. I would definitely go to a “local” store that is closer than trekking another 5-10 min just to go to a chain that might save me a dollar or two. And I would get to know the store owner much better and feel like I’m contributing to my own safety of having an acquaintance nearby. Having that sense of community is great whereas at a chain they function by a code. It’s mechanical and robotic by nature and contributes to the sterility and mundaneness which we need less of. Bravo to those communities that eschew chains.

  2. Rosabella Says:

    You present valid points in favour of some types of chain stores, mainly the advantage of offering qualified products at a lower cost. I would also add that chains tend to be able to offer a larger, more diverse inventory at consistent prices. I believe, however, that the biggest problem of chain stores happens when they dominate the market, thus forcing local stores to close, and then leave the area, leaving a large economic vacuum. A few years ago, I visited the city of Plattsburgh in upstate NY and went to a local mall. A friend from the area pointed to the large empty space where a Borders bookstore used to be, and told me that with that closure the city lost its biggest bookstore (fortunately, there were still some local used and new bookstores in the downtown area). My own belief is that some chain stores can actually be very good for the economic health of the community as long as they don’t leave, and as long as they add diversity, rather than dominate the market.

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