Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Culture of Sameness

On a recent trip to Europe, the first thing we noticed, in big cities and small towns, was that 95% of retail businesses and restaurants were single location, usually with the proprietor behind the counter. There are very few chains, big box stores, or franchises. This is in a remarkable contrast to the US where small owner-operated shops or caf├ęs have all but disappeared. As a result we have less choice, lower quality, and certainly no personal service.

I have been trying to figure this out for several months and the conversations I have had with other small business owners are alarming. Contrary to popular belief, most can compete with the “big guys” on a level playing field quite nicely, thank you. The problem is that the field is not as level as you might expect.

Developers and landlords seem to be increasingly unwilling to rent to anyone but national accounts, (click here) to the point of canceling leases for owner-operators and seeking to fill the space with national chains. There is a growing culture that thinks that small is bad, familiarity is good, and that unique is undesirable. That is why a drive down Dodge in Omaha, or Metcalf in Overland Park or any other shopping street in any American city looks exactly the same.

A while back we were visiting relatives in a city 2,000 miles away. When the subject of lunch came up, they suggested Red Lobster, Olive Garden, or Applebee’s, the same restaurants that are within six blocks of our home. These places are all OK, but they could be anywhere. Signs of local flavor are quickly disappearing.

I don’t have a solution. I have only begun to identify the problem. I have seen window decals in Chicago saying, “Support your Local Merchants,” encouraging neighbors to support their neighbors. This might be a start, but local merchants don’t need benevolence, they just need to be able to rent prime space at market rates, have access to goods at fair prices, and be treated the same as other businesses when it comes to taxes and regulations.

It is hard to compete when the big chain down the street is getting tax breaks, strong arms the supplies to get rock bottom prices, and intentionally drives out competition. But owner-operators have the advantage of knowing the customers, knowing the community, not having to rely on reports to know how business is doing, and having consistent management.

I would like your ideas about this situation. Click on the “comments” link below.