I live in a very special city in America. Boston is one of the few cities in the country where chain stores have been relatively slow to take hold. For much of my time living here, most of the stores I have frequented have been locally owned and operated.
Today, I visited my awesome and amazing stationery store, Bob Slates. They’ve been in business for 83 years, and they are closing their doors next month. Are they the cheapest? Absolutely not. “Big box” stores like Staples are cheaper. But Bob Slate has merchandisers always looking for cool new niche products and a product selection you can’t get anywhere else. The staff tends to be stationery geeks, so we can waste tons of time every visit gabbing about how much more we like one fountain pen nib than the other.
Small stores like this can never compete against a Staples on price. Staples can win every time, just because they’re bigger. Maybe there are “economies of scale” to a big store. Maybe. It may be that a big store simply limits their selection to very mainstream products, and they are big enough to have negotiating leverage to force suppliers to provide low prices or be shut out of he market. “Economies of scale” may simply be the reallocation of profit to Staples, thanks to their bargaining power. Sadly, lower prices do result in more sales, because at the moment of purchase, price is often all we consider.
Personally, I think this is a bad thing. I value variety, community, and connection for their own sake. When I visit certain American cities, I’m astonished at the incredible lack of choice and variety people have in their restaurants and stores. People proudly proclaim, “We have our very own insert-name-of-huge-chain-store here!” without realizing that there could be plenty of alternatives, many of which might actually be much nicer to shop in for a variety of reasons.
It also makes our cities far less interesting and relevant. Why should I visit insert-your-city-here when all I’m going to find is three historic sites and the rest of a city that’s a carbon copy of the city I visited last week? To the extent that large companies do reap economies of scale, they do it by eliminating individuality and turning their customer experience into a consistent—but limited—cookie-cutter approach.
Once upon a time, you could find drinks other than the Standard Coke or Pepsi Panoply (cola, lemon lime, orange, lemonade and diet versions of same) if you wanted to get a drink at a restaurant. But Coke and Pepsi have pretty much taken the entire fountain market. What’s been great for the companies has resulted in me as a consumer having far less choice and variety.
I’ll miss Bob Slate’s, as I’ve missed the succession of wonderful, local stores that have been replaced over the years by nationwide brands. Maybe we’ll be lucky and get a new Staples.