Big Box Panic

Americans have been afraid of chain stores for nearly a century, but independent outlets keep thriving.


On the corner of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston sits one of the famed architect Frank Gehry's least inspired creations. "360 Newbury" is a big box of a building—appropriate considering that its first three floors have long housed big-box record stores—famous only as Gehry's sole multi-tenant office building in the U.S. But for the third time in 10 years, its retail space sits vacant. Its last tenant, the British-owned music giant Virgin Megastore, broke its lease in 2006 after four unprofitable years hawking CDs and DVDs to local college students. A company spokesman promised "to seek an alternative location in Boston." It has yet to do so.

Virgin snapped up the space in 2002, when the failing music retailer Tower Records vacated the building ahead of its long, protracted descent into bankruptcy. Back in 1987, when Tower Records launched its single largest megastore in the Gehry building, the future of Boston's independent record store business looked grim. Vinyl merchants and industry experts predicted that most independent retailers would feel the pinch of the big box; megastores like Tower would have more stock on hand and, it was presumed, would offer significantly discounted prices. The three-story Tower Records & Video would pose a direct challenge to small, local stores like Newbury Comics, a comic book merchant turned record shop specializing in independent music, hard-to-find imports, and 7-inch records by local bands. To make matters worse, the new Tower store would be situated on the very same block as Newbury Comics.

But it wasn't just the specter of Tower that frightened small retailers like Newbury Comics. The music business was experiencing rapid growth in compact disc sales, and chain stores were expected to become the dominant players. Giants like Recordtown, Strawberries, Coconuts, Musicland, and Sam Goody—most of whom have now either disappeared or seen influence decline—would come to dominate the industry, The Boston Globe predicted. Among independent stores, the Globe wrote, a "panic" was precipitating Tower's arrival. So ominous was the thought of a big box music store in Boston that The New York Times covered the store's opening, suggesting that the independents might as well throw in the towel, since Tower "has virtually no competition in its league."

At the time, Newbury Comics co-owner Michael Dreese told the Globe that he too was "worried," and that when all the chains had settled in—the British giant HMV would soon open a megastore across the river in Cambridge and another in Boston's Downtown Crossing shopping district—"there is going to be blood all over the place." It would, presumably, be the blood of the independents. The Times spoke in the past tense, suggesting that the indies' demise was a foregone conclusion. "On the block where a punk-rock record store, Newbury Comics, once held sway," the Times sighed, "a new Tower Records sells that kind as well as more mundane music and a wide assortment of videotapes." The store would stock, a spokesman said, "60,000 cassettes and close to 50,000 CDs," versus the typical average of "12,000 CDs and 13,000 cassettes." Who could compete with that?

Well, Newbury Comics, for starters. "We had a huge competitive advantage knowing the local market," Dreese now says. Today Dreese and his partner, both MIT dropouts, preside over a mini-chain of their own, with 27 stores in five states, while HMV, Tower, and Virgin are all distant memories in New England. As the market changed, centrally controlled operations such as the Los Angeles–based Tower proved vulnerable to smaller, more localized competition. "Virgin and Tower were exceptionally poorly managed and made poor use of technology," he says. "Combine that with Virgin and HMV's very British arrogance when they entered the market."

As the chains floundered in the face of declining music sales, Newbury Comics nimbly altered its business model without abandoning its core constituency of indie music fans. Today, compact disc sales account for just below 50 percent of Newbury Comics' revenue. DVDs are approximately 20 to 25 percent, and pop culture and sports tschotchkes—Boston Red Sox caps, Ozzy Osbourne action figures—cover the rest. Hiring a platoon of tattooed hipsters added an extra patina of authenticity to the shopping experience—something Virgin, HMV, and Tower didn't offer.

According to Dreese, who spent much of his youth in London hanging around the original Virgin Record Shop's lunch counter, Newbury Comics challenged the big boxes by liberally borrowing from the big-box business model, making aggressive use of "loss leader" merchandise (pricing items below cost to entice customers into the shop), competitive pricing, and a refined distribution system that used vast online databases. It moved into the Internet early, selling merchandise through both its own website and third-party Web stores such as Amazon and eBay. Dreese doesn't worry much about downloads (iTunes, he says, has helped his business), and, as he recently told Boston Magazine, his focus remains on how to "keep beating Wal-Mart."

The inability to adapt to local tastes and the failure to anticipate technological market shifts have been the Achilles heel of many big box retailers. When Wal-Mart was forced to shutter its vast network of German stores, a mystified company spokesman told a reporter: "We thought everyone around the world loved Wal-Mart." (The International Herald Tribune quoted a baffled Wal-Mart shopper in South Korea, where the company has also abandoned operations, wondering, "Why would you buy a box of shampoo bottles?") The chain had made the mistake of assuming that full-spectrum retail dominance is achieved by virtue of size alone, without regard to cultural and regional difference.

That error is common not just among chains but among their critics. Market leaders do not always react in a timely and profitable manner to shifts in taste and technology. While big-box retailers have enormous competitive advantages—sui generis leverage with distributors and manufacturers, unparalleled capital resources, immense political influence—they also face a distinct disadvantage in adjusting themselves to local preferences.

'Its presence had a magnetic effect on the caffeine crowd.'
Just ask Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. In 1998 community activists in Harlem bemoaned the supposed retail segregation that concentrated so many Starbucks cafés in midtown and lower Manhattan while ignoring the traditionally minority-dominated neighborhoods north of 125th Street. "In my opinion," one local activist told The New York Times, "people in this area do deserve to get the goods and services they would get in other areas."

Starbucks responded to critics through its "urban coffee opportunities" program, opening a store in Hamilton Heights, a majority Hispanic neighborhood with a significant black minority population. But after a few years doing lackluster business, the chain's Seattle headquarters determined that the store wasn't worth saving and pulled the plug on the franchise. Elsewhere in the city, upper-middle-class New Yorkers were taking aggressive action against supposed corporate usurpation, staging protests and "direct actions" against Starbucks outlets that, they said, were homogenizing their neighborhoods. In Hamilton Heights, the protests went the other way. According to The New York Times, "residents mobilized to save their Starbucks," pressuring corporate headquarters and community leaders because the store was providing jobs and, they hoped, would ultimately boost property values.

When the shop finally shuttered, a local community leader observed that Starbucks "was not attracting the neighborhood support because of a lack of cultural affinity. Most of the people [in Hamilton Heights] don't go to hang out in a cafe. If they hang out, they hang out on the sidewalk. And it's mostly old men talking about the old days." Instead, residents preferred Dominican coffee from La Flor De Broadway Café, a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop with no seats, no Bob Dylan CDs on sale, no chrome espresso machines at $300 a pop. They do, however, serve a strong 80-cent cup of coffee.

In 1998 Jon Cates faced a similar challenge from Starbucks. Located in the bustling Westport neighborhood of Kansas City, Cates' Broadway Café, a haunt of local hipsters, students, and artists, discovered that the Seattle coffee goliath was slated to open an outlet on the same block. The café's supporters sprung into action, papering the windows of their new neighbors with leaflets and eventually appealing to the city zoning department to stop development. When that was unsuccessful, the shop's owners collected thousands of signatures in protest. But that too failed, and Starbucks opened for business, confident in its ability to steamroll Cates.

Three years later, Cates reluctantly conceded to a Wall Street Journal reporter that his business was thriving. Rather than defeating the outsiders with zoning regulations, they won with old-fashioned competition: "Starbucks helped our business, but I don't want to give them any credit for it." Eight years after Starbucks invaded Westport, Cates has actually expanded his business, opening a coffee bean roastery in the neighborhood that supplies other independent cafés in the region.

Phoenix Coffee Co. in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, an independent café who battled Starbucks for five years, also found the Seattle competition a boon for business. Phoenix's co-owners Carl Jones and Sarah Wilson-Jones told Cleveland's Sun Press that "While Starbucks was there"—the store has since shuttered—"our business grew by 20 percent a year. We've been grateful the corporate giant moved in, since its presence had a magnetic effect on the caffeine crowd."

By understanding local tastes, Newbury Comics, Phoenix Coffee Co., La Flor De Broadway Café, and Kansas City's Broadway Café demonstrated that localization, customer care, and authenticity are far more effective means of fighting larger rivals than agitating for anti-chain legislation. Had Broadway Café owner Jon Cates initially looked at historical precedent, rather than petitioning city hall, he perhaps would have understood that David slays Goliath with encouraging frequency in the history of American business.

'One third of the grocery business of the nation has been wrested from the independent store.'
Across two pages of the April 28, 1928, New York Times, reporter Evans Clark observed breathlessly that American corporations were engaged in a ruthless campaign of economic expansionism and were making "deep inroads into the retail store business" abroad. Lurking behind the ubiquitous Boots Pharmacy signs in England, Clark wrote, was the invisible hand of American capitalism: The chain was owned by the New York–based conglomerate United Drug Company, which, by 1928, operated 10,000 outlets in the United States and 800 in the United Kingdom.

American business reached far beyond the traditional trading boundaries of the Anglosphere: "the familiar red signs of a well-known domestic five-and-ten-cent chain appear both on London and Berlin street corners; the laboratories of a St. Louis chemical concern turn out American mouth wash in Madrid; the plant of a Detroit manufacturer assembles American autos in Osaka…fifty-four theaters in Brazil are now linked in a continuous chain of management with movie palaces in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens." In certain areas of industry, the Times ruefully observed, "American companies have practically monopolized output and sales."

Three months later Clark returned to the pages of the Times, this time to warn readers of big business's domestic plot to "displace the neighborhood store" through predatory pricing and sweetheart distribution deals. Beneath an image of a cigar-chomping capitalist casting a malevolent gaze over a map of America, Clark signaled the death knell of the neighborhood enterprise, arguing that the "storekeeper of today is a corporate executive, who presides over chains of a thousand.

Yesterday the corner tobacconist's was just a tobacco store and nothing more. Today chances are it's one link in a chain of tobacco stores whose length is the breadth of the continent.…One third of the grocery business of the nation has already been wrested from the independent store around the corner…and is now in the hands of great corporations which claim the nation is their customer."

The trade journal Printers' Ink expressed similar concern for the neighborhood store: "Think a moment. What has become of the old corner tobacconist? Answer: United Cigar Stores. What has become of the old 'home-cooking' restaurants in so many cities? Answer: Child's, $12,000,000 (backed by Standard Oil) and Thompson's, $6,000,000—to say nothing of several others. Big Business (United Drug Company and Riker-Hegeman) already dominates the drug stores of New York, Boston and Chicago."

If one excises the references to tobacconists and long-forgotten retail giants like Woolworth's and Butler Brothers, the doom-laden rhetoric of the 1920s sounds strikingly familiar; the anti–big box activism of recent years—directed primarily against retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble—has its antecedents in the activism of the 1920s, the apogee of the first wave of anti-chain fear. As the business reporter Anthony Bianco argues in his anti–Wal-Mart book The Bully of Bentonville: "For many people over thirty, the phrase 'the corner store' continues to be powerfully evocative of an establishment where the person across the counter knew you and would even extend credit if you were a bit short, a place that was as distinctively personal as its proprietor's fingerprints."

But this idealized view of the past isn't entirely accurate, as the anti-chain crusaders of the 1920s would have been quick to point out. In Land of Desire, historian William Leach describes the small town of Marion, Ohio, in 1929. In "the town where both President Warren G. Harding and socialist leader Norman Thomas grew up and all the houses had front lawns," writes Leach, "there were two Kresge's, two Kroger grocery stores, three chain clothing stores, two chain shoe stores, one Woolworth's, one Montgomery-Ward, and one Penney's."

By 1914, the burgeoning chain system boasted over 20,000 individual stores. An industry audit that year listed United Cigar Stores Company as the largest chain, with over 900 shops. The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) had 800; Woolworth's 774. The Riker-Hegeman drug chain had 105 stores and, the auditors noted with alarm, was "growing at the rate of more than three a month."

These numbers would expand dramatically in the coming decades. By 1929, over 25 percent of all retail sales were transacted in a chain store. As Clark wrote in the Times, "Competition [in the grocery business] is no longer between the chains and the independents—the independent grocer has ceased to exist as a real factor in the grocery market—but between the chains themselves. Over half the grocery business is done by chains in Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and eight other leading American cities."

By the 1930s, 10 percent of chain store grocery business was transacted through a single corporation (A&P), which at the height of its power controlled a massive 16,000 outlets. As the business journalist Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect, points out, "At its peak, A&P had five times the number of stores Wal-Mart has now (although much smaller ones), and at one point, it owned 80% of the supermarket business." This alarmed not just the local competition, but manufacturers too, as large chains began producing their own branded products. In a letter to independent grocers, one breakfast cereal producer warned that "Any jobber is blind who shuts his eyes to the increasing menace of the chains, a menace to your business far more than to ours."

Of the grocery chains considered "menaces" during the 1930s, few remain in business. Today A&P maintains just over 100 stores. They were swiftly replaced by even bigger goliaths, such as Kroger and Wal-Mart. In 2006, according to the research firm Retail Forward, Wal-Mart was the largest grocer in the country, transacting around 16 percent of all food and beverage sales.

'The number of chain stores in any community should be limited by law.'
Industry groups mustered more than pressure campaigns in their battles against the chains of the past. They also called for laws to "defend" local stores—to stop the spread of Kreske's, Sears, A&P, and various regional chain druggists. Recent legislation attempting to hinder the expansion of big-box retailers has roots in a long history of legislation—most of it nullified—against chains.

While anti–big business agitation has a long pedigree in America, it wasn't until the 1920s when the chain became the prime target of both left- and right-leaning politicians. As early as 1922, the Los Angeles City Council tabled a resolution mandating that "the number of chain stores in any community should be limited by law." Sen. Royal S. Copeland (D-N.Y.) bemoaned the influence of big business on the old neighborhood, urging lawmakers to pass legislation to protect small businesses: "When a chain enters a city block, ten other stores close up. In smaller cities and towns, the chain store contributes nothing to the community. Chain stores are parasites. I think they undermine the foundations of the country."

Future Supreme Court member Hugo Black, then a Democratic senator from Alabama, told his upper-chamber colleagues in 1930, "Chain groceries, chain dry-goods stores, chain clothing stores, here today and merged tomorrow—grow in size and power. We are rapidly becoming a nation of a few business masters and many clerks and servants. The local man and merchant is passing and his community loses his contribution to local affairs as an independent thinker and executive. A few of these useful citizens, thus supplanted, become clerks of the great chain machines, at inadequate salaries, while many enter the growing ranks of the unemployed."

By the late 1920s, politicians realized that populist rhetoric directed against chain stores was a political winner. In 1928, Sen. Smith Brookhart (R-Iowa) called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the "chain menace." After a six-year investigation, the agency published its findings. While siding against the alarmists—there were no true monopolies in retail, the commission determined—the report's complaints will sound familiar to today's Wal-Mart critic: merchandise sold beneath cost, strong-arming manufacturers, employees paid low wages. The study also provided unintended advice for the local merchant, observing that "less service [is] given to customers by chains."

In 1928, the Supreme Court struck down the Pennsylvania Drug Store Ownership Law, an anti-chain ordinance that required drug stores to be owned by pharmacists, not corporations. The court ruled that the law's stipulation of who could own a business was "repugnant to the Constitution." That year 13 states attempted to pass anti-chain legislation.

In 1938, Rep. Wright Patman (D-Texas) introduced legislation to tax any chains with over 10 outlets in a single state. Its provisions, one industry observer noted, "were drastic enough to have put many a chain out of business." The chain tax, Chain Store Age editor Godfrey M. Lebhar calculated, would have a disastrous effect on large retailers. If Patman's bill had passed, the Woolworth Company would owe approximately $81,000,000—in 1938 dollars—in taxes, even though the company's net profits amounted to $28,000,000. "In the case of the A&P," Lebhar wrote, "with approximately 12,000 stores in 40 states at that time, the tax would have totaled more than $471,000,000." The bill never made it out of committee, but the stage was set for future legislative attacks on the chain system.

'The retail book trade cannot live against the competition.'
Today's independent booksellers and their supporters fret about an Axis of Evil consisting of Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble—and with good reason. Today, independent bookstores account for just 15 percent of the market, down from 80 percent in the early 1970s. The American Booksellers Association (ABA), which represents over 3,000 independent stores, filed suit against publishers' "unfair" use of volume discounting in 1995 (they settled out of court) and again in 1998 against Barnes & Noble (the ABA settled on a $16 million payment of its legal fees and dropped the suit).

But the ABA too could assuage their fears by looking to historical precedent, when both publishers and smaller shops attacked chain discounters with blind fury. As far back as 1872, Publishers Weekly argued that publishing houses selling directly to consumers—and often offering free shipping to boot—would sound the death knell of the local bookstore: "The retail book trade cannot live against the competition of manufacturers and either the competition or the retailers must cease to be."

In 1900, the R.H. Macy's department store sued the ABA for refusing large retailers the right to sell books below cost, which, the group contended, would "ruin the small bookstore." Macy's, which has long since left the bookselling business, used paperbacks as loss leaders—another way of enticing customers in the increasingly crowded Manhattan department store market. Fourteen years after filing suit, New York's Supreme Court decided in favor of Macy's, awarding the company $140,000 in damages.

But it was a pyrrhic victory for Macy's, which would be repeatedly targeted by the ABA in decades to come. 1934 brought the National Recovery Administration's "codes of fair competition," including a "bookstore code" that disallowed discounting of books until six months after their release. In 1935, much to the ABA's dismay, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the codes unconstitutional.

Later that year, New York's state legislature passed the Fair Trade Act, which would force Macy's to abide by its resale price maintenance agreements with certain publishers and to cease loss-leader discounting. The New York State Supreme Court invalidated the legislation the following year, with a judge declaring, "The act attempts to give to private persons unlimited power over the property of others." When the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision on appeal, finding that the state's Fair Trade Act was indeed constitutional, Macy's exploited a loophole in the law exempting book clubs from discounts. Thus, Macy's Red Star Book Club was born.

During the 1930s campaign to punish stores selling below cost, a Carnegie Corporation report complained that the business of bookselling had inexorably changed—it had become a business: "The old-fashioned bookstore was a charming place, but charm alone will not solve the problem of modern book distribution.…Hard though it may be to face the fact, the bookstore of today cannot primarily be a place for those who revere books as things-in-themselves." An ABA representative later complained to a Senate committee that "non-book-minded merchants" were killing the industry and "price-cutting, unless stopped, will ultimately eliminate the personal bookstore from the national scene and in turn will have a serious effect on the quality of our national literary production."

This, of course, has yet to happen. Chain stores are still the undisputed kings of bookselling, but their sales figures have remained flat in recent years. Meanwhile, the ABA announced in 2004 that "independent bookstores'…sales increased, in terms of both dollars and number of units sold, capping a three-year period of sustained growth," citing an Ipsos BookTrends study. In 2004, an ABA spokesman told The Wall Street Journal, "Even though there are fewer stores, the survivors are doing better." As for our country's literary production, 2005 saw 172,000 books published in America, a dramatic increase from the 39,000 released in 1975.

Today's attempts at anti-chain legislation follow a similar pattern—and have, in most cases, met a similar fate. Maryland's anti–Wal-Mart law, which mandated that the company spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on health care, was recently voided when a federal judge ruled that "state laws which impose employee health or welfare mandates on employers are invalid." In 2006 the Chicago city council passed a resolution requiring stores of at least 8,300 square meters in floor space and earning at least $1 billion in revenue annually to pay a "living wage"—approximately $13 per hour—only to see the rule vetoed by Mayor Richard Daley. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar law that would have forced Wal-Mart and other big box stores to provide health care benefits for their employees, arguing that "singling out large employers and requiring them to spend an arbitrary amount" on insurance would have no appreciable effect on "the health care challenges we face."

'Wal-Mart's growth formula has stopped working.'
But if legislation has done little to restrain the chains, the marketplace has regularly cut them down. Contrary to many activists' assumptions, America has not been condemned to centuries of retail uniformity. Quite the contrary: The 21st century consumer has greater choice and access to a wider assortment of products than any time in American history.

In a country of such colossal wealth, price and convenience are not the only factors affecting consumer choice. Even among Starbucks executives, who single-handedly created a market for espresso drinks in the Unites States, there exists a deep fear that it won't be an aversion to paying $5 for a cup of coffee that will inhibit the company's growth but a backlash against the chain's focus on standardization. In February 2007, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz fretted in an internal email (later leaked to journalists) that "the automation that is helping to drive the company's expansion is sucking the romance out of the Starbucks experience." Starbucks isn't going to disappear any time soon, but as Business Week recently pointed out, the chain "is suddenly besieged by tough competitors."

The same is true of Wal-Mart, a dominant company showing signs of wear and overextension. In 2006 it posted a mere 1.9 percent growth in same-store sales—that is, sales in outlets that have been in operation a year or more. It was the slowest rate since the company's inception. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the retail analysts Darrell Rigby and Dan Haas suggested that the smaller chains "are managing to coexist and even thrive in the same forest with Wal-Mart." Business Week recently reported that "Wal-Mart's growth formula has stopped working," arguing that "America's largest corporation has steered itself into a slow-growth cul de sac from which there is no escape." Richard Hastings, a senior analyst at the retail rating agency Bernard Sands, agreed, telling the magazine that we were seeing "the end of the age of Wal-Mart. The glory days are over."

Maybe. But stores like Wal-Mart will always be with us, just as they were when they were called Woolworth's or A&P. If Sam Walton's creation disappears, it will doubtless be replaced by a more clever, more modern adaptation of the business model he popularized. It is likely true, as big-box critics contend, that stores like Wal-Mart will always dominate certain sectors, thus threatening the existence of many smaller competitors. But chain stores often create markets that didn't previously exist, both by forging new trends (like the $10 new release CD, quickly adopted by Newbury Comics) and by provoking a backlash against the alienating experience of big-box shopping. There will always be those that find Wal-Mart inauthentic, those that prefer the punk rock ethos of a Newbury Comics to the Deep South values of Wal-Mart, with its habit of censoring CD covers and song lyrics.

360 Newbury, graveyard of Virgin Megastore and Tower Records, recently announced that it would be renting its first two floors to the electronics and CD retailer Best Buy. After years of doing combat with big boxes, Newbury Comics' Dreese doesn't betray the slightest worry about the latest competitor. "We're the last man standing in Boston," he says. It's a safe bet that, sometime in the near future, he'll be peering down the road, watching another megastore packing a moving van.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at Reason.