Chain Gang

by Harry Sheff

Last week, a frustrated retailer sent me an e-mail expressing disgust about our reporting on Wal-Mart. “They shouldn’t even be on my radar,” he wrote. While the world’s largest retailer is not by any stretch a competitor for your typical men’s specialty store, many of them reflexively resent what they think Wal-Mart stands for: cut-throat business tactics that result in the destruction of small and local businesses.

Wal-Mart, which operates more than 4,300 stores in the U.S., has been trying to get into the New York City market for years. In late April, the New York Daily News reported that Wal-Mart has its sights set on Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn for its first NYC store. Apparently, the retailer’s previous attempts in Queens and Staten Island failed after local groups organized oppositions.

Separately, the New York Times reported that more and more small communities, like Cape Cod, Mass; McCall, Idaho; Port Townsend, Wash.; Ogunquit, Me.; and Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., are successfully barring (some) retail chains from their communities.

“Such laws are typically motivated by concerns about independent stores not being able to compete economically with large corporations, and about creative communities becoming homogenized and losing their appeal,” wrote Times reporter Beth Greenfield.

While competition is one factor, communities are also motivated by “aesthetics, traffic, things like that — particularly in resort communities or in communities with a lot of wealth,” Univ. of Virginia law school professor Richard C. Schragger told the Times.

If small communities let big chains in—whether they be Starbucks, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart or Men’s Wearhouse—there’s a danger that they displace the independent stores that made the communities desirable locations for the chains in the first place.

But on the other hand, the big chains can bring jobs and retail traffic, as well as filling gaps in areas full of niche retailers. If there isn’t balance, however, the big chains easily eclipse local businesses as consumers gravitate toward the speed, convenience and familiarity of big retailers. What’s a specialty store to do?