The Social Benefits of Soft Serve

Several of my fellow contributors at Humane Pursuits relish the small town, “real humanity” feel of Mom & Pop stores.  Brian wrote about his love of real neighborhood coffee shops last November, for example.

In general, I enjoy locally-owned businesses but cannot find reason to deplore the success and use of consumer economy titans like Costco and Starbucks.  Mom & Pop, in my opinion, should not have a carte blanche authority to offer less variety at a higher price.  In most every place that I have lived, independent coffeehouses and other locally owned businesses still exist along side big box stores and other chains.  Admittedly some places do not sustain that same variety and national chains possibly do lower the overall number of locally-owned businesses a given market can support.

Nevertheless, I think chains can and do bring positive benefits to their community, beyond mere price advantages and a greater selection.  In an article posted today in The Atlantic, its author Michael Parks meditates on the importance of Dairy Queen to rural Texas.  His reflections remind us that most modern corporate behemoths originally began as a Mom & Pop enterprise.  He also touches on the rise of franchising which has enabled many entrepreneurs invest in and serve their local communities.

It is an article worth reading because the moral imagination brought to bear in arguments about the perils of Big Business may need a little perspective.

I leave you with the article’s closing paragraph:

Finally, and most importantly, soft serve requires a machine. A machine, in turn, requires a store. Not quite solid, and made largely of air, soft serve can’t survive a freezer. You can’t buy soft serve in a carton. Every cone requires an excursion into the world. It is a public ice cream, meant to be eaten fresh. Following the invention of soft serve, the creation of thousands of new places to go and sit and eat it was almost inevitable.

17 Comments

  • Avatar
    April 5, 2010

    Mark

    Wait, what?

    We shouldn’t be supporting Mom & Pop-type places because we like how they “feel.” We should be supporting them because they are tied to our community, are run by our neighbors and friends, and because they support our neighbors and friends. These are the things for which we gladly sacrifice savings and the ever-over-valued demigod of choice. Indulging in the “feel” of Mom & Pop places is a post-modern exercise in overcompensation for guilt we feel from our complicity in modernity.

    Similarly, that many large corporations were once small, locally-owned businesses doesn’t excuse their behavior as large corporations. That’d be like excusing criminals because they were once innocent children.

    Lastly, I don’t understand the argument regarding Dairy Queen. Why do you need a chain to have multiple soft-serve ice cream shops across the country? And I wouldn’t exactly call someone who is waiting for a chain to start allowing franchises in his area an “entrepreneur.”

    Otherwise, yes, I agree we need more of the moral imagination in our understanding of locally-owned businesses. I just don’t see that above.

  • Avatar
    April 5, 2010

    Nathan

    Mark, I’m making an appointment to check you into rehab.

    I’m sympathetic with Adam’s aversion to the reflexive hostility toward incorporated businesses often coming from Front Porchers (i.e. “Similarly, that many large corporations were once small, locally-owned businesses doesn’t excuse their behavior as large corporations. That’d be like excusing criminals because they were once innocent children.”) What behavior do you mean, Mark, in this context?

    Franchising occurs for many reasons, and it’s not an insidious, subversive attempt to destroy community. It actually gives local businessmen and aspiring entrepreneurs the name-brand and capital to make a successful start in their community.

    That said, I do hate Costco with the heat of a thousand suns. Chains that blatantly prioritize utility and efficiency to the detriment of human scale deserve all the opprobrium they get, and I’m happy to join in. Trader Joe’s is an example in the opposite direction.

  • Avatar
    April 5, 2010

    Mark

    That said, I do hate Costco with the heat of a thousand suns. Chains that blatantly prioritize utility and efficiency to the detriment of human scale deserve all the opprobrium they get, and I’m happy to join in. Trader Joe’s is an example in the opposite direction.

    This is a sentiment I fully support.

    In response to your question, Nathan, I was thinking of something like McDonald’s. They used to be just another hamburger joint until Ray Kroc made them a giant. The result was a shift from quality, local food to mass-produced junk food sold as cheap as possible and marketed towards low income earners.

  • Bryan Wandel
    April 6, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    Mark is dead-on regarding the fuzzy feeling of buying local (or green or whatever other penitential compensation we do to paint over our discomfort with modernity). I think the positive argument he is making is one of ontology and, what seems to be a favorite trope of Mark’s, defining the Good in order to obtain a correct ordering of values.

    If the argument is (in part) ontological, then issues of “efficiency” are rephrased as issues of ends. Ultimately, what we are talking about here is whether moral existence is basically the same in any place/time, or whether historical conditions can play a role in the ability to be more or less (ontologically) human. The former extreme is one of individual moral culpability, and the latter extreme is sometimes called “historicism.” In Natural Right and History, Strauss savaged Edmund Burke by claiming that Burke’s theory opened the door for the latter. Strauss, that indefatigable defender of the absoluteness of human nature, was blinded from seeing in Burke the possibility that ontological needs/demands could be historically conditioned in a way that did not destroy them, but (even) refined them.

    Adam – I know you aren’t claiming man is homo economicus, but Mark’s alternative is also not quite the extreme of homo localis. In part, he is making a philosophical point about the conditions under which moral/ontological being can be more fully realized, and the means by which that might occur (the means being, often, the human-to-human interactions of life, thus creating a preference for the local, the locally-sourced, the transaction defined as interaction).

  • Adam D'Luzansky
    April 6, 2010

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Boy howdy. Here we go…

    On the “Mom & Pop” feeling issue: I would heartily agree with Mark’s criticism of people who shop locally merely because they feel better about doing so. That is similar to the argument that I have made about fair trade coffee.

    In Mark’s initial reply, he defined the correct motives for buying local:

    “We should be supporting them because they are tied to our community, are run by our neighbors and friends, and because they support our neighbors and friends.”

    Excellent point. I agree. But I would include the local Walmart management and staff among those people who are tied to our community and who are supported by my patronage of Walmart.

    Mark doesn’t clarify why larger corporations or chains are inherently bad.

    My main point in the original post was to simply argue for a via media in the debate between “local business” and “Big Business.” I think the inherent goodness of Mom & Pop stores has often been overstated, as has the inherent badness of larger corporations.

    I would ask Mark, at what point does a growing, successful local business no longer deserve your patronage? After they open another store in the next town over? the next county? the next state?

    I appreciated Nathan’s comments on franchising and I would say that issue is one of the upsides of bigger companies that I think radical localists overlook.

    To Mark’s question about the relevance of Dairy Queen, let me quickly say that of course you don’t “need” a franchise to serve soft serve ice cream. Many entrepreneurs indeed do not wait for a franchise to come along. But for some it is a legitimate way to get started. Owning a local business, especially a restaurant, is a highly volatile and unstable venture. Many have personal circumstances in which they can bear those capital and cash flow risks. Many others do not.

    The soft serve story interested me because of the idea of an inherently public dessert. If you read the article, the franchise aspect was tangential. Soft serve is interesting because it can’t be made in the home and can’t be purchased for home consumption. Though nitpickers may rightly point out that you could slurp it all down in your car.

    The DQ brand helped launch soft serve’s commercial success. Many Mom & Pop stores can and do offer soft serve ice cream, at least in part because there is greater demand for it.

    Similarly, Starbucks is–in large part–responsible for the growth and success of independent coffeehouses and, for those that like it, fair trade coffee. Before the late 1990’s boom of Starbucks, most people drank “mass produced” Folgers in their homes. Starbucks popularized the idea of a coffeehouse cup of coffee, which previously had only been of interest to a smaller demographic (think young urban professionals).

    That brings me to the point that Mark makes about Mickey D’s. Sure they may sell unhealthy food. But it isn’t like Mom & Pop have been selling “high quality, local food” for ages. While farmers markets are more likely to offer those nutritious local items, many Mom & Pop restaurants and general stores — both ages ago and today — sold processed and unhealthy stuff. This isn’t a strike against them in my book, but rather another example of the overinflated appreciation of the small town store.

    I say that not to defend Ronald Inc–there are plenty of legitimately bad things about them. I did once live in an area where the grocery store didn’t stock fresh vegetables but did have two McDonalds. However, I think we can appreciate the mixed reputation of both sides of this debate if we stop lionizing one and vilifying the other. That last sentence is really my main point.

  • Bryan Wandel
    April 7, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    Adam-
    I see that you value human-to-human contact, even in economic transactions. That’s a good point of commonality to start with.
    Let me build on it in a brief post to follow.

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2010

    Nathan P Origer

    I did my best not to indulge, but I couldn’t decline something as silky and sweetly delicious as rich, creamy soft-serve vanilla.

    Adam, two initial points about your original post, wherewith I find myself, with qualifications, shaking my head in broad disagreement.

    1. A quibbling note in re “[I] cannot find reason to deplore the success and use of consumer economy titans like Costco and Starbucks. Mom & Pop, in my opinion, should not have a carte blanche authority to offer less variety at a higher price.”

    Costco may sell at impressively lower prices, but it’s worth noting that an inherent part of their strategy here is offering less variety. Slightly less quibblingly, I submit that the implication here about small businesses is unfair overgeneralization. For one geographically relevant example, I encourage you to make the drive to one of the DC region’s locally owned Magruder’s Supermarkets locations next time you need groceries. Sure, their prices aren’t competitive with a giant, but they’re no more expensive than a Giant (See what I did there!) or Safeway, their sale ads are impressive (Wednesday issue of the Post, and they offer much better meat and produce than most chain competitors — all in a distinctly more humane setting.

    2. You write, “Nevertheless, I think chains can and do bring positive benefits to their community, beyond mere price advantages and a greater selection. In an article posted today in The Atlantic, its author Michael Parks meditates on the importance of Dairy Queen to rural Texas. His reflections remind us that most modern corporate behemoths originally began as a Mom & Pop enterprise. He also touches on the rise of franchising which has enabled many entrepreneurs invest in and serve their local communities.”

    And just what are these additional positive benefits? The failure to elaborate here (notwithstanding your later comments about the benefits to franchisees (when the franchisor doesn’t make franchising such a hellacious experience as to make the local owner little more than a pawn, rather than any sort of entrepreneur — but I digress), which are, within reason, good, although wholly unnecessary as you concede, and, further, notwithstanding the point you make about Dairy Queen’s popularizing soft-serve, assuming that this is a good in any meaningful sense of the term) is what troubles me most about your disquisition: You tell me that chains are, or at least can be, good for reasons beyond cheap variety, but I have no idea what these benefits are. Maybe the relocation of the great bulk of economic activity to car-demanding fringe areas? The slow, painful neglect of older, more aesthetically pleasing buildings — that often tie us to our ancestors, filial and communal — in more walkable — one may say “humane” — districts?

    Now, assuming, arguendo, that franchising is good, at least in so far as it “has enabled many entrepreneurs invest in and serve their local communities”, should we not question whether this is so because these local communities have always needed such particular investment and service, or because the (accelerated, in the last few decades) rise of chains has, by refocusing the bulk of economic activity from myriad dispersed communities to regional hubs, left significant gaps in these local communities?

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2010

    Nathan P Origer

    Mr. Hitchen, my friend, you write,

    “Mark, I’m making an appointment to check you into rehab.

    I’m sympathetic with Adam’s aversion to the reflexive hostility toward incorporated businesses often coming from Front Porchers (i.e. “Similarly, that many large corporations were once small, locally-owned businesses doesn’t excuse their behavior as large corporations. That’d be like excusing criminals because they were once innocent children.”) What behavior do you mean, Mark, in this context?”

    Whether or not Mark belongs in rehab, I assure, has nothing to do with the substance (or style) of the comment to which you offered this riposte.

    In one respect, the behavior to which Mark refers is irrelevant. However seemingly unclearly he worded his comment, the point is, essentially (and, Mark, correct me if I am wrong), that having once been an aw-shucks, ma-and-pa establishment means nothing, because the behemoth no longer is. But really, we both know that, even if there’s hyperbole involved, Mark is referring to the stereotypical actions of the “giant evil chain” — mistreatment of laborers (and pittance wage), disregard for environmental concerns — and “democracy”, too —, and so forth.

    Who’s being hostile toward incorporated businesses, per se? is not the local grocer incorporated? Or the charming little bookstore? It’s maybe a minor point, but one worth considering — by you, by me, by Porchers —, that incorporation isn’t inherently bad (and I don’t think that most — certainly not all — of the contributors at FPR would say so, though a couple may, indeed, be sufficiently romantic to make the contention) —, but it’s when we separate owners not only from risk (by way of limiting liability), but from decision-making and real connection to the bricks and mortars, employees, costumers, and victims of any possible externalities (by way of public offering).

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2010

    Nathan P Origer

    One final set of thoughts.

    Adam, you write in your last comment,

    “Excellent point. I agree. But I would include the local Walmart management and staff among those people who are tied to our community and who are supported by my patronage of Walmart.”

    [I hope that boldfacing that makes it clearer than I made quoted fragments in previous comments; my apologies.] A few problems with this extension of Mark’s quite-right point. First, a significant distinction exists between the proprietor of the local grocer, general store, or pharmacy and even the management, let alone the employees, of Walmart, to wit, the proprietor has ultimate decision-making power and is familiar with the community in which he operates (and presumably resides in, or at least near, said community), whereas final decision-making power at Walmart lies in the hands of a select few individuals in Arkansas.

    Moreover, given the size of a region that a Walmart generally serves, it’s just as likely that the cashier who rings up your detergent at Walmart is from a town fifteen, or thirty, miles away as it is that she is from, and is tied to, your community.

    “Mark doesn’t clarify why larger corporations or chains are inherently bad.”

    See above, and consider, further, that while profits from Adam’s Apples and Oranges stay in D’Luzanskyville, Walmart profits are funneled back to Bentonville. If I recall correctly, deposits are made electronically, at the end of the business day, to a bank in Arkansas (unless, maybe?, it’s one of them Walmarts where they done tried to get into bankin’, too). No need for Farmer’s State Bank, or Community Bank and Trust, when we can ship it all “home”.

    I would ask Mark, at what point does a growing, successful local business no longer deserve your patronage? After they open another store in the next town over? the next county? the next state?

    This is something of a challenging question to field accurately. One of the reasons that I appreciate the “differential tax” endorsed by Belloc is that, to an extent, it leaves this decision in the hands both of local officials and proprietors, as they see fit for their own locales and companies — no need for casuistic legislation, perhaps.

    “I appreciated Nathan’s comments on franchising and I would say that issue is one of the upsides of bigger companies that I think radical localists overlook.”

    I can, to an extent, sympathize with this. However, it becomes problematic when the franchising agreement, as I noted above, leaves the franchisee as little more than a pawn. I’m thinking, specifically, of Sears, where a local owner doesn’t actually own any of the merchandise, but operates his entire independent Sears store as a glorified commissioned-sales setup. Other franchise-agreement problems involve costs (particularly for advertising — NAPA comes to mind here, as I’ve witnessed personally; but maybe McDonald’s is the best example: I don’t know how much a McD’s franchisee pays regularly for advertising, but Good Lord Almighty, does he even need advertising anymore? Is not an image of the Golden Arches ingrained in the mind’s eye of every American from youth? Perhaps, by now, it’s an excuse for Ronald to squeeze a little more out of the franchisees, however unnecessarily?)

    Beyond these problems, we still have to consider cultural and architectural homogeneity, don’t we, particularly if we are concerned the unbought graces, if we really are looking at this issue more complexly than simply as a matter of economics?

  • Adam D'Luzansky
    April 8, 2010

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Let me first begin by repeating what my prerogative is: to show that localist knee-jerk vilification of medium to large size business and chains is unwarranted. Those institutions admittedly have their faults, but radical localists overlook their benefits. You may be a reasonable, levelheaded localist in which case my arguments likely don’t apply to you.
    With that reminder, I’ll move on to engage Nathan P.O.’s remarks (who I don’t assume by the way, is a radical localist). Unfortunately, I must continue to follow the pattern of using numbered arguments/ideas because there are so many different trains of thought. I will limit myself to 10 bullets.

    For those who won’t read beyond this point (aka everyone but N.P.O. and myself), I’ll summarize by saying that my two biggest concerns are: 1) the continued lack of a bright line articulated by which Mark, N.P.O. or any localist that can determine when they personally would stop supporting an expanding, successful local business; and 2) that N.P.O.’s responses made generalizations about franchises that indicated his unwillingness to join me in my middle ground of seeing them as a mixed bag with both good and bad potential.

    [For those confused about pronouns, “you” = “N.P.O.”]

    1. You claim that I make an overgeneralization about small businesses that is unfair. I assume that you are referring to me saying, “Mom & Pop, in my opinion, should not have a carte blanche authority to offer less variety at a higher price.” But I don’t make any generalizations about small business here; rather I’m merely saying that I would oppose moves to outlaw or severely restrict medium to large size businesses. That is just an opinion, not a generalization—at least not about small businesses anyway.

    2. What is the distinctly more humane setting that Magruder’s offers? My wife and I shop at almost every variety of grocery store in a 10-mile radius of our home and Magruder’s isn’t one of them. Since they aren’t in our community, I curious if their setting would still be more humane for us than our other options.

    3. Some additional benefits that chains can bring to their community beyond increased competition could include:
    -the aforementioned opportunity to franchise (I don’t think I have to prove that they are good in all cases)
    -opportunities for employment (larger companies can acquire the capital necessary to expand production – an issue of particular relevance in today’s restricted capital environment)
    -opportunities for investment returns (community banks and credit associations can only offer a limited range of investment vehicles)
    -enabling supply to meet demand—a win for business owners and shoppers alike (hopefully you would not begrudge the successful local business owner who delivers a product so popular that he must open additional locations to meet demand, I’m thinking regional chains here)

    4. You accuse franchises of being terrible and hellacious. I think you miss my point. I am not claiming every franchisee’s experience will be wonderful, but rather that in many cases it is just fine and therefore should not be written off as wholly bad. Surely you cannot believe that anyone who chooses to open up a franchise is a mindless pawn.

    5. You think franchises are somehow inherently more likely to be in car-demanding fringe areas? Not every chain is an outlet mall. This is again an example of the unhelpful generalization. Many chains populate urban “walkable” areas.

    6. Your argument that chains have somehow unilaterally relocated economic activity away from dispersed communities is not compelling. I think more macro level shifts like changes in technology and gender roles bear more responsibility for increased urbanization of America. Chains may play some small role, but my guess is by comparison it’s inconsequential.

    7. I think we’re oversimplifying things to say that Walmart’s bosses in Arkansas make all the decisions [decisions which I presume you think will be bad] and that the local business owner is free to make wonderful choices. Big businesses are capable of good decisions and small businesses are capable of bad ones. The point about cashiers living too far from the community that a Walmart shopper lives in is odd. Should people only work in their own community? What is they can’t find a job there?

    8. The point about Walmart’s profits being funneled back to Bentonville is misguided. Whether money goes back to Bentonville or not, a portion of profits go toward wages; the wages of the people that live and work near the Walmart in their community.

    9. I wish that you wouldn’t have punted on my request for clarification regarding when a successful local business no longer deserves a good localist’s patronage. It is great that you’d prefer local municipalities make these decisions, but what is your opinion? How do you make your commercial decisions?

    10. You close by belittling the franchisees as pawns again. I’ve already covered why that kind of generalization isn’t helpful and isn’t responsive to my call for a middle ground between radical localism and unlimited corporatization. You also cite franchising costs as a strike against the institution. But of course there are franchising costs, it’s a trade off. You can either build your own product and brand from scratch, with all the inherent risks or your can license someone else’s. In my earlier response to Mark, I said that some people can the personal and financial circumstances to bear the risks of striking out wholly on their own, while others do not

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2010

    Nathan P Origer

    Adam, thank you for the lengthy, wordy reply. Here goes my attempt at a counter.

    (First, I happily embrace the title “radical localist”; I think, however, that we may mean different things by this. I’m inclined to use ‘radical’ in the literal, Latin sense, of going back to the root: There’s something especially conservative — if not reactionary (cf. Bill Kauffman) — about this sort of radical localism; if we are to accept ‘radical’ in the more recent sense, as you’re using it, in contrast to “level-headed localis[m]”, then I appreciate your giving me the benefit of the doubt. Caveat emptor.)

    I’ll summarize by saying that my two biggest concerns are: 1) the continued lack of a bright line articulated by which Mark, N.P.O. or any localist that can determine when they personally would stop supporting an expanding, successful local business AND 9. I wish that you wouldn’t have punted on my request for clarification regarding when a successful local business no longer deserves a good localist’s patronage. It is great that you’d prefer local municipalities make these decisions, but what is your opinion? How do you make your commercial decisions?

    I should be a little more precise in responding to this point, and apologize for the punt. Politically/socially, I want to reiterate my point that I don’t think any magic number exists — or should exist. Perhaps paradoxically, having a set-in-stone number here is un-localist: It’s too universalist. I admit that it’s problematic, but it’s a problem that I’m happy to accept, leaving specific decisions to the voters and officials in each community, county, and state.

    Personally, the number for me is somewhere about five (for reasons of o.-c.d. as much as anything else), with some fudging depending on circumstances — type of business, size of each unit, size of the community/ies, and so on. Having worked in a small-town grocery, I’m quite cognizant of the costs involved, and have spent plenty of time considering the benefits of expanding. If my old boss were to open a few stores, I’d applaud, and continue happily to support him, so long as these stores were close enough to his home operation that he, personally, could be present with some regularity at each of his stores. He obviously won’t be living in each town, but his managers (ideally) will be, and if he’s there to show that he’s an active member of each community, that’s great. If he expands to the point at which he loses all touch with the customers and employees in his stores, then we have a problem. (Don’t worry, I realize that I may be weakening my own point about Magruder’s, or so I think — I was never part of the community where their nearest store was, so I can’t speak with certainty. I was never part of any community, though, when I lived in Maryland.)

    If we’re talking about a specialty retailer — say, for instance, a hat store — I’d be more willing to accept a few more stores, in a wider geographical area, in the independent chain (again, so long as some meaningful relationship exists between the store and the community) than I am with something as commonplace as a grocery store.

    2) that N.P.O.’s responses made generalizations about franchises that indicated his unwillingness to join me in my middle ground of seeing them as a mixed bag with both good and bad potential. AND 4. You accuse franchises of being terrible and hellacious. I think you miss my point. I am not claiming every franchisee’s experience will be wonderful, but rather that in many cases it is just fine and therefore should not be written off as wholly bad. Surely you cannot believe that anyone who chooses to open up a franchise is a mindless pawn. AND 10. You close by belittling the franchisees as pawns again. I’ve already covered why that kind of generalization isn’t helpful and isn’t responsive to my call for a middle ground between radical localism and unlimited corporatization.

    Before, I wrote, “(notwithstanding your later comments about the benefits to franchisees (when the franchisor doesn’t make franchising such a hellacious experience as to make the local owner little more than a pawn, rather than any sort of entrepreneur — but I digress), which are, within reason, good, although wholly unnecessary as you concede” [Italics new.]

    AND “I can, to an extent, sympathize with [your agreement with Mr. Hitchen’s comments about franchises].”

    I think that it’s quite clear that I decidedly don’t write off franchising wholesale. I offered a couple of specific examples for what can and sometimes does go wrong with franchising. And at no point did I cite franchising costs per se as a strike against franchising. Again, I noted specific instances in which certain costs make no sense to me. It is a trade-off, and it is sometimes worth it. I meant to make a final note there, but forgot, to wit, that perhaps franchisees ought to consider working — and public policy should, perhaps, be directed — toward replacing franchise models with cooperative-ownership models. (And I misspoke: NAPA actually is a cooperative; it just happens to be a terrible example of one, in large part because of advertising, but also because it’s a very convoluted structure, involving a fairly large, publicly traded parts company that is a large chunk of the cooperative — self-defeating, really. But, again, I digress.)

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2010

    Nathan P Origer

    (Ah, damn it! I meant to close that bold tag after the word ‘corporatization’. My apologies.)

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2010

    Nathan P Origer

    1. You claim that I make an overgeneralization about small businesses that is unfair. I assume that you are referring to me saying, “Mom & Pop, in my opinion, should not have a carte blanche authority to offer less variety at a higher price.” But I don’t make any generalizations about small business here; rather I’m merely saying that I would oppose moves to outlaw or severely restrict medium to large size businesses. That is just an opinion, not a generalization—at least not about small businesses anyway.

    The implied generalization — or, at least, the generalization that I inferred — is that it is standard policy for Mom & Pop to overcharge on a limited selection, with hopes that legislation will keep out competition, as if M&P’s goal is the rip off consumers. If I read too much into it, I apologize.

    2. What is the distinctly more humane setting that Magruder’s offers? My wife and I shop at almost every variety of grocery store in a 10-mile radius of our home and Magruder’s isn’t one of them. Since they aren’t in our community, I curious if their setting would still be more humane for us than our other options.

    This may, in some part, be a matter of definition. You’re right to point out that Magruder’s may be less humane, insofar as it’s not in your community. When I described it as a more humane setting, I was referring specifically to the much smaller footprint that the store has than has a Whole Foods, Costco, Giant, et c.; the incredible accessibility of staff that I’ve experienced; and that it is a locally owned store with long roots in the DC area.

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2010

    Nathan P Origer

    5. You think franchises are somehow inherently more likely to be in car-demanding fringe areas? Not every chain is an outlet mall. This is again an example of the unhelpful generalization. Many chains populate urban “walkable” areas.

    I’m not sure that it’s that great of a generalization. It depends a lot on the where of any particular circumstance. In a place like DC, certainly you’ll see plenty of franchises and company-owned chain stores in highly walkable places. But once you get out to exurbia and the sticks — the places that I know better —, this changes. Excepting an occasional CVS or 7-11, what remains of downtown (or what thrives, in some instances) is largely independent, while plazas, strips, and shopping centers have the bulk of the chains.

    This all does raise an interesting tangential point. One of the great problems, at least from my perspective, about New Urbanism in practice is that N.-U. developments often end up featuring neighborhood-ized chains, rather than local joints, in a chicken-and-egg situation in which rents become overwhelming for local entrepreneurs. But that’s a matter for a discussion all its own.

    ———I do want to reiterate, just briefly, my closing point:

    “Beyond these problems, we still have to consider cultural and architectural homogeneity, don’t we, particularly if we are concerned the unbought graces, if we really are looking at this issue more complexly than simply as a matter of economics?”

    Obviously, none of us are reducing things to economics alone, but I think that, generally speaking, in discussions about chains-versus-local businesses, this (very important, I think) point slips through the cracks. And it can be averted by using form-based codes that permit chains/franchises, so long as they adapt architecturally (although the cultural-homogenity problem, which is harder to overcome, remains). ———

    6. Your argument that chains have somehow unilaterally relocated economic activity away from dispersed communities is not compelling. I think more macro level shifts like changes in technology and gender roles bear more responsibility for increased urbanization of America. Chains may play some small role, but my guess is by comparison it’s inconsequential.

    You’re right to assign blame for urbanization to technological and gender-role changes, for sure. I (for the most part quite lamentably) agree here. My issue is with the influence that chain retail and the automobile (itself, of course, a form of technology) have had on the strange combination of spatial decentralization — sprawl and economic evacuation of many city centers — and, more important, economic spatial centralization — the shifting of economic vitality from twenty small towns to one regional hub, which I’d suggest is similar to, but not the same problem as, urbanization. It’s one set of conditions when great swaths of Americans leave the farm and Ruralia for the fast-paced city life; but it’s another, more problematic one (for me — and that about which I’m complaining) when they still live in Mayberry, but have/choose/have to because they chose to drive to Generic Regional Exurb because basic economic elements — general stores, grocers, and so on — now exist in the form of region-serving megaplexes. When we focus on this, rather than on urbanization trends, I think that chain stores have played a more consequential role.

  • Avatar
    April 8, 2010

    Nathan P Origer

    7. I think we’re oversimplifying things to say that Walmart’s bosses in Arkansas make all the decisions [decisions which I presume you think will be bad] and that the local business owner is free to make wonderful choices. Big businesses are capable of good decisions and small businesses are capable of bad ones. The point about cashiers living too far from the community that a Walmart shopper lives in is odd. Should people only work in their own community? What is they can’t find a job there?

    [Generally, yes, although Walmart certainly has made some good decisions, especially, of late, the decision to try to incorporate as much locally grown produce as possible — although I do have my doubts about the long-term effects of this policy.]

    Big businesses certainly can, and do, make good decisions, and I’ve known a number of small-business owners who have made terrible choices — but w/r/t to running their businesses well and on a moral level, if you will, in how they contribute to and interact with their communities. My point, though, was that, good or bad, the ultimate power lies in Bentonville, not in the various cities where Walmart operates. Certainly, store managers — who presumably do have some meaningful connection with the community — make important choices, but they can always be overturned, for whatever reason, by the people in charge of the entire behemoth corporation.

    Regarding the point about cashiers living too far away: No, I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should always work where he lives. We know that to be, for better or worse, a virtual impossibility, for a number of reasons. I don’t work in my hometown (although I certainly should do so, were it possible). The point was simply to counter your contention that the staff are tied to your community. I’m hard-pressed to believe that Walmart Associate Billy, working in Town A for $11.50/hr and living in Town B, has particularly strong ties to Town A. If Billy lives in Town A and works at Town A’s Walmart, then he very likely may be tied to the community.

    I know that I only have ties to the town where I work insofar as my job, as a planner at the regional planning commission, requires my involving myself, sometimes, pretty extensively and intensively, in the decisions made by local governments in thirty-plus towns.

    That’s all that I meant to convey with that point.

    8. The point about Walmart’s profits being funneled back to Bentonville is misguided. Whether money goes back to Bentonville or not, a portion of profits go toward wages; the wages of the people that live and work near the Walmart in their community.

    Why is it misguided? Yes, the wages stay in the community, but what percentage of any particular Walmart’s gross income goes toward that store’s employees’ wages (I don’t know.), and how much, rather than going to an owner who live in town, go back to a city thousands of miles away? My old grocery-store boss spends money in town when he can — We’re lacking a lot of basic retail, not to mention options for entertainment, so he can’t reasonably be expected to spend it all. —, whereas the Walton family, Mike Duke, and H. Lee Scott aren’t likely to spend a whole lot of money in the thousands of communities where their stores operate.

  • Adam D'Luzansky
    April 12, 2010

    Adam D'Luzansky

    My being on vacation for my anniversary precludes me from engaging in the more thoughtful reply that N.O.P. rightfully deserves. However, my friend Bryan Cleveland, shared this linked which I thought would be an entertaining yet meaningful bit of data, literally: http://projects.flowingdata.com/walmart/

    It certainly isn’t a piece of evidence in “defense” of a position. Just a graphical depiction of the franchising phenomenon we have discussed.

  • April 29, 2010

    Why I am a Hypocrite «

    […] actions. Sometimes we think we are hitting a universal principle. Sometimes it’s about a value, like localism, to be counterbalanced against other values. But as moral questions, that is, questions […]