My grandfather, who ran an independent clothing shop in a small Pennsylvania city for decades, used to say that consumers who shopped at malls and chains should be shot.
He was joking. Sort of.
His business went under a few years ago - which he blamed on the cheaper chains. I still feel a twinge of guilt when I shop at big box stores. Now that I am getting ready for my first baby, it seems we are at Babies R Us, Target, Publix and other chains every weekend.
But then we ran into big chain troubles. We had to return two defective cribs from Babies R Us.
Luckily we found a crib for the same price at the independently owned Baby Love. The staff was knowledgeable, old enough to have children themselves and the crib arrived in good condition within days. I had an idea:
Could I swear off big box shops and large chains?
Where would I buy my groceries near my Fort Lauderdale home? Could I buy gas? What if I wanted to buy something basic like a book? See a movie? And if I was able to find these services locally, how much more would it cost? Would I get better customer service or feel like I had a more enjoyable experience at a small place?
Here was my criteria: Shop within 15 miles of my home or office for one week in late October and early November. I defined "independent'' as a business owned by an individual who owned no more than five of the same businesses. I told no store employees about my experiment until the end of my purchase so I wouldn't get special treatment.
Some services were easy. For lunch I had dozens of options close to my Fort Lauderdale office. But others were much more challenging: I drove 18 miles to an upscale Kosher grocery market to get produce.
It was much easier to shop at independent businesses in my hometown of Amherst, Mass., which had a traditional downtown and my second home, Minneapolis, which had clusters of neighborhood shopping districts.
But South Florida is a car culture. And officials have given the green light to practically any developer who wanted to build megastores with little thought to fostering the growth of locally owned businesses.
Experts critical of the bigbox infusion say it is possible to avoid the chains.
"Ive urged people for years to go on a mega-store diet, " said Al Norman, who launched Sprawl-Busters, an organization that fights the development of Wal-Mart and other superstores. "For many of your needs you are not chain-dependent. A lot of people are now exhausted from all these supercenters and dont want to deal with a store four times the size of a football field if they are looking for 10 items."
A colleague who criticized my story idea said that residents in poor neighborhoods lack access to chains and frequently shop at independent stores. But its not so simple to declare that chains are the savior of the poor.
Mega-stores have put small shop owners out of business that were a way for immigrants and the working poor to climb to the middle class, said Stacy Mitchell, author of Big-Box Swindle. The allure of cheap goods entices customers to buy more than they need, and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs overseas has led to a decline in union jobs in the United States.
During the last 20 years the United States has seen a dramatic rise in chains throughout all sectors, Mitchell said. Since 1990, the United States has lost about 10,000 independent pharmacies and 5,000 hardware stores.