Today I was checking out the Atlantic Monthly (at least, I think it was the Atlantic Monthly. Now I can find no reference to said article on their webpage, though I found the author), and I found this very interesting article defending chain stores. This is an that issue hits close to home (literally) as there has been a ton of development in the town where my mom works. They recently built a MASSIVE shopping complex, and they're in the midst of putting in a few more.
At first I thought I was against chain stores, or big box stores, or whatever you want to call them. The walmarts, targets, best buys, circuit cities, office maxes, and most ominously, meijer's, of the world. Then I found myself saddened that there wasn't a closer Target to my apartment in SF (6.4 miles to Colma. it takes like 15 minutes!). People hate them because they supposedly destroy a town's individuality, put local stores out of business, have bad harmful policies, and are in general unsightly. Well, some chain stores (ahem, Walmart) match this description pretty well. But they all don't have to!
The article made a good point on the individuality token. Local stores are not the only thing that add color to a town, and often when they do add color, it's in a kitschy touristy fashion. Think of two quintessential San Franciscan things (besides the bridge and the hippies) -- Pier 39 in is one of the most atrocious things I've ever seen, and the trolley system is an overpriced joke. It's not the stores that make my town unique, its the people, the geography, and the culture. How lame is it to define a town by where people shop?
Speaking of where people shop, they do shop at these stores. A lot. Measuring by where the dollars go, chain stores are actually a good thing. They provide trustworthy options and dependability at good prices! I know I can go to Best Buy to get that ipod connector thingy and I know they're not going to rip me off. The gazillions of "local" stores lining Mission Street in San Francisco are all full of crap. Why do people shop at the Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy? Because there are no other choices? No, because they have stuff that people like at reasonable prices! And national stores get more attention, meaning that its more likely they're being watched and regulated. That's a good thing.
The harmful policies part is a little harder to counter. Walmart definitely treats its employees unfairly, though it's not clear that all these stores do. I have some friends in the suburbs who have worked at some of these stores, and they were just happy to have a job. One should definitely reconcile this sort of thing with their own values when determining where to shop, and the government should do its job and regulate.
It's a shame that overzealous zoning laws relegate these stores to the suburbs, where they become these massive monoliths of consumerism in fields of parking spaces and turnoff lanes. This isn't the only option -- Starbucks is a great example of the way a chain store/restaurant can integrate with "downtown" areas and connect with local culture. I think it's the exurban sprawl that is hurting small towns (and americans!), not the chain stores. With centralized planning, and the companies that run these stores to foot the bill, every small town could have a central shopping area with stores, cafes, parks, and offices where people could shop happily and actually walk and run into each other instead of just driving past in their cars.
Ironically, that same Atlantic Monthly had another article about how supermarkets were terrible because they put local wine stores out of business by being more convenient (why not just grab a few bottles while you're buying the food instead of making a separate stop). And they were ruining the wine industry by selling a few bland wines en masse instead of having skilled employees to recommend quirky individual things. But then this lack of experience made people go to the local wine stores. or something like that. Ironically again I read this issue while sitting in a Borders drinking Seattle's Best coffee next to a franchised wine store in a mega strip mall.