Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chains in Uptown?

Penzeys Spices: A chain, yes, but not exactly a Walmart, either. What is the role of chains in Uptown? Are there "good" and "bad" chains?

A lot of locals (both those who live in Uptown, as well as those who like to visit) like to bash Uptown for its "corporate culture" and "suburban" design. Yeah, I know, I complain about chains plenty myself. Still, I think we could all use a little more time spent in thoughtful debate about the role of chains in Uptown (and Lyn-Lake).

Here's a representative comment from the anti-chain crowd, or what I think of as the "I hate suburbanites" subsection of anti-chain people, written by "Lisa" on the City Pages' blog posting about the Uptown Bar's closure:

"This is the further suburbanization of Uptown, bringing in suburban-style chain retail designed for suburbanites. Destined to fail, as most have: Gap, Limited, Garden of Eden, TCBY, etc. Maybe the city planners should think about THAT. People who live in the city do not want to patronize suburban-style chain retail. If there is no character or history left in the city, forget it.

This is also a consequence of all these big, stupid festivals taking place at Henn/Lake, like that Loppet, that bike race, etc., designed to bring the greater Twin Cities into town with their generic mentality. You get that going in the neighborhood, then it is marketed to these chain retailers as a place to capture that business. This is NOT progress."

This is a pretty typical rant. They tend to incorporate the same basic themes: "Uptown is suburban. All the cool people left. It's just a big mall. People from outside of city limits are inherently bland or have no taste." I don't want to patronize suburban-style chain retail, either. But a lot of this is rather uninformed, pointless, and doesn't move us forward to what we DO want, or how to go about getting it.
Lisa throws out a list of "chains" she doesn't like, so let's start with that. First, I'm pretty sure Garden of Eden isn't/wasn't a chain. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure it's the same store that is now located on Grand in St. Paul; if that's true, then they are Twin Cities-based, currently have only one location, and proudly sport the 3/50 project's logo on their website), and given that it lasted so long in its location I wouldn't say it's a failure, either. I don't bring this up to argue the specifics with someone who probably will never read this post, but rather to question why one would list Garden of Eden as suburban-style chain retail. Is it because bath products and lotions are seen somehow as suburban? Do city-dwellers not take baths? Granted, I never could afford to buy much of any substance at Garden of Eden, but they filled a niche, and I think they were a nice addition to the neighborhood. Fancy oils and lotions aren't exactly a necessity in life, but there's nothing about them or the store that is inherently "suburban" or "generic" in style or function. My translation of this is to mean that it's not hip enough, perhaps because Garden of Eden lacked irony.

Let's go on to the rest of the list: Gap, Limited, and TCBY. Was there ever a Limited? I don't think so, although my memory may be failing. I assume she means the Express (part of Limited Brands, so she's not so far off). I never loved having an Express there, but did appreciate the opportunity to buy some basic women's clothing in Uptown. The store itself opened out both the street and into Calhoun Square, which isn't exactly traditional mall-style, either. And finally, the company as a whole has had problems, so I don't know if Express's ups and downs in Uptown reflect at all on the neighborhood, either. In sum, I didn't love Express, but do think that variety in clothing options in Uptown (in both style and cost) are a good thing. I would agree that I would prefer to have those options be independently-owned. Gap... well, the Uptown store was its first non-mall store in Minnesota, and it did last for much of a decade. I can't say that I love the Gap, but I prefer it to the Victoria's Secret. On the other hand, I think it's better to have a chain than a vacant storefront. I can think of many ways I'd rather see in that prime corner location, though. Finally, TCBY. Yes, I think of this as being a mall-store, but thought that it was a good use of its corner location. I doubt it went out because neighborhood residents avoided it because it was "suburban" in nature.

Again, I'm not picking on Lisa in particular, but rather attempting to figure out what people think of as acceptable versus non-acceptable chain stores in Uptown. Why does she list these stores, and not others? There are, after all, chains in Uptown that I think a lot of people don't even realize are chains; Paper-Source and Penzeys Spices come to mind as prime examples. I prefer my stores to be locally-owned and operated, but as far as chains go I think both are a far cry from "suburban-style chain retail," and demonstrate that chain stores can adapt to fit their surroundings.

The other thing that the anti-suburban crowd (as in: anti-suburban residents) forgets is that local people are also often frequenting the chain stores, the bland bars, and the other places that get so often derided for being geared only to those dreaded interlopers from Eden Prairie. One of the issues that Uptown faces is that it IS both a regional and a neighborhood destination. Overall, I think that's a good thing. Uptown's residents aren't enough to support the number of stores, restaurants, and other businesses that most of us want in the neighborhood. Maybe that could change if Uptown's density were to increase, and if more of us were to actively concentrate on keeping our spending in the neighborhood, but for now, if we want diversity and quantity then we've got to encourage visitors from across the metro area. That does NOT mean that we need to embrace chains or "suburban-style chain retail." In an ideal world, Uptown would be able to serve both residents and visitors with its innovative mix of local businesses and let the chains go elsewhere.

I try to avoid chains, I don't like shopping at malls (although find them oddly fascinating in their way), and I prefer my neighborhoods unique and mostly chain-free, but I also disagree with the anti-suburban advocates as to their characterization of suburban residents. There's often a smugness, an air of superiority, a feeling that "I'm better than you because I live in Minneapolis and you live in Eagan." I hate Eden Prairie, and think it would be an absolutely terrible place to live. I also think that many suburban lifestyles ARE damaging, unsustainable from an environmental viewpoint, and destructive to the fabric of society. I think city living IS better. That doesn't mean that the residents of those suburbs deserve to be bashed, though, or even if they actively prefer to live in a modern subdivision in exurbia that doesn't mean that they can't enjoy a visit to Uptown, too. On that note, take a look at the number of Uptown residents who think nothing of a trip out to Southdale and the Mall of America, or the city residents who live lives virtually indistinguishable from those living outside of city limits. It's not so simple as city residents are unique and individual, while suburban residents are "generic." Kind of ironic, given that I'm guessing many of the same people who profess horror when someone from the 'burbs drives in to get dinner at Figlio are the same people who tout diversity as one of the reasons to live in the city. That doesn't mean we have to make Uptown mall-like in function or appearance, of course, or accommodate every visitor's wishes and desires (including on things like parking), but it does mean that we as a collective whole need to stop complaining if people from outside of city or neighborhoods limits drive (or, ideally, bus) in to do some shopping.

In the end, I would prefer that Uptown have few or no national chains, but realize that that's probably unlikely to happen. I don't think all chains are bad for Uptown, and think that there are already existing examples of chains that have made a positive impact on the neighborhood. Paper-Source and Penzeys are both great fits; Urban Outfitters, too, seems to be an overall positive influence on the neighborhood. I'd prefer to see Victoria's Secret leave, or at least see it move indoors to Calhoun Square. I don't think chains (or franchises) automatically translate into "suburban" style development, and in some cases they are filling a niche that has otherwise been left empty. I like to be able to shop in the neighborhood, and if a chain is the only locally-located business filling a need then I will probably go there to do my shopping. When I have a choice, though, I will always make the attempt to go with the local option first, and believe that we do need to take a greater active role in helping support new and existing independent businesses.

And finally, I think there are good and bad chain stores. Some fit in well and are good neighbors; others, not so much. Admittedly the same could be said of independent stores, although with less financial resources than the big places they have limited power to create as much havoc. Ultimately, though, those people who complain about chains need to actually do something to support the alternatives. I'm trying to be good about this; whenever possible I'll spend the extra couple of bucks to buy local, and if I can't afford the extra then I'll try to hold off on the purchase until I can. That doesn't work for everything (there are definitely some gaps we need to fill...) but after reading Big-Box Swindle I do find myself increasingly thinking about every purchase I make.


  1. I think the other thing to point out is how many non-chains have failed. Clearly people are also failing to head to the non-chains. The closing of Heavenly Soles in Lyn-Lake has been devastating to me personally, but I'm always amazed at how many people had never heard of it. Majors and Quinn isn't exactly most people's first choice for getting books. I admit to heading to Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books when looking for books. Not always, but sometimes.

    Also, to your point of there are good and bad chains, some services would not be available in the neighborhood without chains. There would not be a full grocery store in the area without the chains. And look how Rainbow is planning to change to better fit into the neighborhood and meet their own goals. And while there are other vision places in Uptown, my Health Insurance covers Vision World, so I got there. At least it is physically located locally.

    Then there is Sox Appeal. I mean, really, how can you hate a store that only sells "sox"? Even if it is in every mall in America.

  2. "Maybe the city planners should think about THAT."

    I wish people would understand the limitations of city planners, the Planning Commission, and even the City Council when it comes to which businesses populate our neighborhoods. There's no legal authority to prevent a chain store from purchasing a building or signing a lease. For better or worse, we've got property rights and the fifth amendment to deal with.

    Simply put: if you hate chain stores, support independent businesses. It's funny how many people bash chains and then go buy a book on Amazon or CDs at Best Buy. Practice what you preach.

  3. My general rule of thumb is to first buy local at an independent, but better to buy in the neighborhood at a chain rather than shop somewhere far away. The chains do fill needs that are otherwise going unmet.

    As to those who don't practice what they preach: I'm not perfect, and sometimes do buy at chains, including the big box stores. But yes, I would be very curious to know how many of the loudest opponents of chains in Uptown (and its "suburban" character) actually do all or even much of their shopping at independents.

    Another irritating thing is when the people who don't live in the Uptown area complain about how it's no longer "cool" and how therefore they won't go there anymore because it's too "suburban." I get what they're saying, but I think the people who live elsewhere and come to Uptown or Lyn-Lake mostly for specific purposes (to shop at "cool" stores or go to the hip bars) forget that it's an actual neighborhood with residents of all backgrounds who appreciate the ability to buy basics at stores within walking distance. A neighborhood filled with only destination niche indpendent stores that don't cover the basics is, in its way, just as artificial as a place filled with only chains. Much as I complain about Victoria's Secret, at least it's somewhere to buy relatively affordable basic underwear, for example. Same thing for Sox Appeal: I need socks, I like fun patterns, and since there isn't a local place (that I know about) filling that niche then I might as well support the neighborhood store, chain or not, that will give me what I want right within the neighborhood.

  4. There are some places where cities have tried to take a stand against "formula businesses;" I'm not sure what, if anything, is in place or has ever been proposed in Minneapolis, and I'm not entirely sure where I stand on the idea. I would think it would be tougher to enact in Uptown, which does have a regional draw, but might be something worth serious consideration in Lyn-Lake. Still, there's also the balance between making sure residents have access to local businesses, and I would rather have a chain than a vacant building, although I think some chains or formula businesses are far better than others.

  5. Uptown for the most part IMHO an entertainment district. Take a look at the spending patterns of the residents. I bet dining/drinking outweighs all other expenditures 4 to 1.

    Sure there are locals that have firmly planted roots and want to support locally owned businesses but the "fuel" of uptown is young professionals/DINCs.

    High discretionary income spending, little to no fiscal responsibilities. At some point (usually around tax time) they take a look at there spending and realize they have nothing to show for it. So they move out and another young person hell bent on staying hip after college moves in.

    The cycle continues.

  6. Here's what bugs me. Folks who live in places like Uptown decry the "suburbanization" of the neighborhood. The simple answer is, support local mom and pop businesses. Don't give your money to the chains and that way we can keep them out of Uptown. But this falls apart when the Uptown people need something and it's off to teh suburbs and CostCo, Target, BestBuy etc etc. Somehow it's ok to give your money to a Walmart in the suburbs because what happens in the suburbs doesn't concern you. If these things are bad for Uptown, what about everywhere else? Shouldn't the same rules apply accross the board? Maybe Eden Prairie doesn't have to suck. Maybe we can build communities that aren't pockmarked by fast food and big box retailers. Will the things we feel we need to cosume cost more? Hell yes. But if you don't like what you're seeing, maybe it's time to pony up. Let's face it, when you go and buy stuff at a Target (or any chain store) in the suburbs, they know who you are, and where you live. If enough people from the city are traveling to the suburbs to spend their money, then it's only a matter of time before the stores move closer to their customers.

  7. My general rule of thumb is to buy what I need for a combination of lowest cost and greatest convenience. Of course sometimes I can't find what I need at Wal-Mart or Target or I just don't want to drive that far. Sometimes the thought of dealing with a trip to Wal-Mart to save five bucks is unpleasant enough that I go somewhere else, perhaps to a 'nice' independent store close by. But realize that attitude is most certainly not prudent except for the better paid cultural snobs among us.

  8. I'm not a "better paid cultural snob." I wish I was (the better paid part I mean), but I'm not. I realize not everyone can afford to buy locally all the time, but for many of us we could support independent stores without added expense. Prices aren't always cheaper at the large chains, although they work hard to create that illusion. I buy a lot of stuff used, so in that sense I'm not out there supporting many of the local clothing boutiques. But the money I save by doing that, or by buying a little less of something, means that when I do buy something new I can buy it a local place that might be a bit more expensive than at a Walmart. I don't think we should look at buying locally as an example of being cultural snobs; it's an example of wanting to keep money in our communities and retaining a sense of local identity. "Local" doesn't have to mean "expensive."

    To respond to Mitch's comments about suburbs like Eden Prairie not having to lookt he way they do, I completely agree that those who criticize chains in Uptown and then go out and do most of their shopping at a suburban big box store or mall are hypocrites and aren't helping anything. That mentality helps add to the perception that shopping locally means expensive trendy boutiques, since those are the stores that can hold their own when people are doing all their basic shopping elsewhere and looking to the neighborhood/local places only for special purchases or splurges.

    There's also the fact that many people DO like chains and big box stores. I know people who feel more comfortable with chains. The book Big-Box Swindle also quotes the owner of an independent bookstore in Santa Cruz who says that he has a hard time connecting with tourists and the town's college students; the tourists go for familiarity (I don't get this mentality: why visit a mega-chain while on vacation if you have the same store back home?) and many of the younger people grew up in environments where the local Barnes and Noble was considered a "cultural oasis."

    Target is my own personal downfall. I don't go there very often, and I like them less and less as both the company and the stores balloon out of control. At least the downtown store is a reasonable size. It's easy to boycott Walmart; there aren't any nearby and because they are so easy to hate. Target's a bit tougher because it is local, I know people who work there, and because I have fond memories of shopping there before they starting switching everything into those horrible superstores. I'll continue to do some shopping there, but am definitely trying to buy at smaller stores when possible, and will shop the downtown store when I can.

  9. Just to add my 2 cents worth on this conversation. I moved from a suburb into an Uptown condo in a senior citizen building because it is where I work full time and pay my taxes to (which as noted, are double of the suburb where I used to live). Rather than drive 12 miles, I can walk the 3 blocks to work, shop, eat out, exercise and be entertained. It's like a small town (with tons of diversity) within a city. I love living here. Note that I am senior citizen newbie (new to being senior citizen - which defines me as a Boomer, I guess). As to the chain store issue, I agree, it's better to have something in a location rather than a vacant store front. Also, not having to drive to a big box store with it's irritating "bigness" to get a basic tool such as a screw driver so a person can finish a project and get out and enjoy the Uptown area is one of the things I love here. With basic stores such as grocery, hardware, postal service, paint stores, and book stores a person can pretty much keep their buying within the community.