Salon, August 31, 2013
“Whether you’re on the road or just cruising around town, your favorite McDonald’s menu items are never far away.” So boasts the McDonald’s Restaurant Locator, and a glance at a distribution map of franchises in the United States proves the point. Population centers burn brightly with the Golden Arches; even the sparsely populated Western states are adequately supplied by the nation’s 14,000-plus fleet of McDonald’s.
That reach is astounding, but not exceptional. Four out of five Americans live within 20 miles of our 11,000 Starbucks; 30 percent of American grocery shopping occurs at our 4,500 Wal-Marts. The most familiar element of the American landscape — excepting green highway signs and certain brands of automobiles — might be Subway, which has over 25,000 U.S. locations.
You could be forgiven for thinking, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Each town looks the same to me.” From Juneau to Jacksonville, we Americans share, as much as anything, a common commercial experience, a fractal pattern of retail at once comforting and mind-numbing. It stretches the powers of the imagination to think that eating and shopping options in the American city were once as distinct as fingerprints. The shift from mom-and-pops to chains has been one of the defining shifts in American cultural life, and counter-protests have been largely futile, with opponents pegged as sentimentalists standing in the way of progress and low prices.
That is changing. Dozens of American municipalities, mostly small towns with tourism in mind, have passed laws restricting the entry of chain stores. The biggest city to do so is San Francisco: in incremental steps punctuated by a ballot initiative in 2006, the California city famous for liberal activism has enacted the most influential anti-chain legislation in the United States.
The scope of San Francisco’s control over chains like Radio Shack and Walgreens, for example, has grown each year. “When we start adding in all these uses, it just feels like a war on national retailers,” Workman warned. “National retailers can come in and do a lot of good in a neighborhood.”
“Not much focus is on the consumer, and giving the consumer the right to choose between companies that are located in proximity to each other,” Linscheid added. “We need to remember that this is America, and that a certain amount of competition is good for the consumer.”
Supporters of formula retail restrictions caution against invoking the “free market” argument. Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance who has written extensively about formula retail controls, pointed out that there are numerous hidden biases in favor of chains beyond the government subsidy. Suburban road design creates the perfect environment for big box stores; landlords prefer national chains for reasons — credit, accountability, longer leases — that have little to do with consumer preference.
It’s a debate that other cities may soon be having, as chain stores continue their march from fading suburban malls into resurgent city centers. In New York, the city’s trademark bodegas are dropping like flies and 7-Eleven is on the move. The City Council recently changed Upper West Side zoning to limit storefront size — a tacit attempt to decrease the street frontage of banks and chain drugstores. Washington, D.C., has kept Wal-Mart at bay with a bill, passed in July, that requires very large retailers to pay wages 50 percent over the District’s minimum wage. San Diego enacted ordinances in 2007 and 2010 requiring community impact reviews for large retailers — only to repeal them with Wal-Mart at the gates.