Last month, Wendy Waters wrote about new research from the University of Alberta that suggests that the presence of large, indiscriminate retailers like Wal-Mart can actually improve independent retail in the area by forcing owners to re-strategize and become more specialized in what they offer consumers. This makes plenty of sense: business owners that do nothing in the face of increased competition are hardly the kind of flexible, dynamic people that add to a local economy; nor are their businesses likely to be the ones that add to local character, which is often one of the most loudly mourned of the assumed casualties when big boxes come to town.
Wonkser (and long-time Where blog crush) Ryan Avent made another recent argument in defense of chain retail, suggesting that it strengthens urban economies and brushing off the argument that chains kill local retail:
Should we be upset when new chains move in? No, not really. There are reasons that chains do well nationally, namely, convenience and price. We should hold chains to high design standards, but there’s no reason to deny local residents access to chain retail. I have seen folks argue that chains are bad because they take profits elsewhere, but this is essentially an autarkic argument–that we’d be better off doing everything for ourselves. Obviously, that’s not the case. Successful businesses provide value for consumers, and preventing those businesses from operating here would deny consumers that value. Sometimes scale economies are important, such that national chains can deliver sharply lower prices. This is good for local consumers, who should be free to decide when they want to spend their money on independent retail and when they just want the best deal available. Moreover, many District [of Columbia] firms benefits from national and international business. A local only model leaves everyone poorer...
...It’s important to remember that chains can complement indie business. Some folks want to spend their money at an indie home furnishings store and save money by shopping at Giant. Others want to save money on their furniture by shopping at Target, and go all out at a local organic grocer. It takes all kinds.
Avent also makes the case in his post for the densification of areas looking to increase commercial vibrancy. In urban areas, where parking is scarce, businesses must draw on the local population for revenue; thus, independent retail flourishes in densely populated areas; the residential use must come first. It follows, then, that anyone looking to increase the diversity of businesses in an area currently starved for independent, specialized retailers should focus on increasing residential diversity. Re-thinking big box stores like Super Wal-Mart will require a residential component of some sort. We've been seeing this type of thinking slowly take shape as malls have begun incorporating condos over the past decade or so; more recently, strip malls have started looking at residential retrofits as a solution to waning consumer interest.
I can't help but wonder what it might be like to live in, around, or on top of a reclaimed Wal-Mart. The idea that the suburbs of today will look vastly different a few decades from now is an enticing one, but it's still difficult to imagine what, exactly, they might look like. Hopefully, as urbanists, we can learn to stop avoiding these stores entirely (I know I'm not the only one who does it) and start thinking more constructively about their future uses. The sooner the better, it would seem.
(Photos from Flickr user austrini, and from bustler.net. The original full-sized versions can be viewed by clicking the photo.)