Personal Finance

Breaking the chains

Walter Villagran serves stone crabs at MoonDoggie's Seaside Coffee Shack in Fort Lauderdale.
Walter Villagran serves stone crabs at MoonDoggie's Seaside Coffee Shack in Fort Lauderdale. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

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 ifI 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.

"I’ve 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 don’t 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 it’s 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.

The downside: less competition. Big-box stores come into a market with low prices but the prices creep up once the local competition disappears, she said.

Buying from independent businesses is better for the local economy, Mitchell said. When you spend $1 at your local business, up to 68 cents stays in the area as that retailer buys other services locally. As much as 85 cents of the dollar you spend at a chain leaves the local area.

In Fort Lauderdale, I’ve generally received decent service at Publix and Target. But I’m often exhausted and cranky when I leave the big stores. I found shopping at small businesses to generally be more relaxing.

I had fun shopping at Fernanda’s International Food Market. The deli server wasenthusiastic. A woman serving prepared foods threw in extra green beans after sherang up the price. My parking spot was only 10 feet away. The only problem was when Icalled later to speak to an owner or manager -- but more on that later.

Though I did buy some unusual items, I couldn’t find all the staples at small stores.When I dropped by Las Olas Chemist in search of unscented Dove soap -- the only type my husband will use -- they didn’t have it. But I did buy Green Tea soap for myself.

Here’s a sample of my shopping experience:


If I had wanted a Bible or a book about sex there were plenty of options. But I needed to buy R un by Ann Patchett for my book club. No luck. I searched the Internet, the independent bookstore website and the Yellow Pages and couldn’t find any general interest independent book shop close to my home. I put my name on the waiting list at the library but the book hadn’t arrived a few days before my book club so I bought it at Barnes & Noble.


I assumed the Gateway movie theater was independent. It sure felt like it. There was a kiosk where movie viewers could post their comments on index cards. A movie ad for the National Guard led to a political squabble in the audience when one man yelled out "boo" and a woman retorted "communist! cowards!" Police were summoned. It was almost as entertaining as the movie, but we missed stadium seating at the big theaters. To my surprise, a brochure in the entrance revealed that the Gateway is part of the Sunrise Cinemas chain consisting of seven cinemas in the area.


I don’t know how Moon-Doggie’s Seaside Coffee Shack is surviving since it’s hard to spot in its massive sprawling strip mall, but there were lots of people inside. It has way more character than any Starbucks.MoonDoggie’s has a beach scene painted on the wall and pastel-painted furniture. The soup, grilled cheese and decaf white mocha made a perfect lunch. My husband raved about the cookie I brought home. A soft, thick oatmeal raisin cookie is such a simple thing but he’s tried several from various bakeries in Florida and has declared them all subpar.

Unlike a massive chain, an independent business can quickly respond to customers’ ideas. MoonDoggie’s owner Doug Birer said customers asked him to make the juice bar organic. So he did -- and raised the prices.


A couple of weeks before I launched my experiment I tried to order pizza from Shuck’s on the Water on a Friday night. But I kept getting put on hold and when someone did try to talk to me I couldn’t hear anything. I gave up and ordered from California Pizza Kitchen, which seemed to have the takeout business down to a science, including curbside pickup. But despite my server’s repeated promises that my pizza would come without bacon, when I arrived home it was smothered in bacon. I called and yelled at a manager who sent me a coupon, but it ruined Friday night dinner. During my no-chain week I went to Shuck’s on a weekday and ordered to go in person. No bacon -- as promised.


I bought some groceries at Fernanda’s International Food Market in Fort Lauderdale.Fernanda’s didn’t have the natural soda I usually buy at Whole Foods but it did have some unusual Italian lemon soda that did the trick. At $4.99, the multigrain bread was $2 more than what I buy at Publix, but much better.

Staff in the store were pleasant while I shopped but I had a bizarre experience when I called later. The person answering the phone hung up on me when I asked to speak to an owner or manager. When I called back and identified myself as a Miami Herald reporter and explained why I wanted to speak to an owner or manager he yelled at me and said that it’s "aggravating" to get calls at 3 p.m. I assumed it would be easier to talk to an owneror manager of an independent shop than a chain, but I guess that isn’t the case and rude staff can exist at any size shop.

Aroma Kosher Market had a nice selection of produce and the avocados were only 10 cents more than what I paid at Publix the next week. And the salmon was $1 less per pound than Publix. But a surly guy at Aroma serving the prepared foods squashed my hope that I’d always get better service at an independent. When I asked if the cashew chicken dish had high-fructose corn syrup he said he had no idea.


We bought two baby outfits at Bubbles and Bubbles for $47. Yes, we could have bought two outfits for probably half the price at Babies "R" Us, but we’re still mad at the store and these were unique.


I was stumped. I’ve never driven by a gas station in Fort Lauderdale that doesn’t have the name of a major corporation. Gas station experts told me that most stations are independently owned but get their oil from the corporations.

"Chances are the one you sit nearest to right now is not owned by a major oil company, " said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council.

He was right. Next door to my office is a Shell station. The owner of the business said he owns three gas stations in Broward.

My week of no-chain shopping has not led to a permanent ban on big box stores. It’s too hard in Broward to buy groceries and some basic household necessities withoutshopping at Publix and other chains.

But the unique items I found and the friendly service I received at some of the independent businesses has inspired me to keep my eyes out for more locally owned shops.

If I don't want independent businesses to completely disappear, it's my responsibility as a consumer to spend some of my money at their shops.

1. Fernanda’s International Food Market 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale

2. Stork’s bakery 2505 NE 15 Ave., Wilton Manors

3. Shuck’s on the Water 2528 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale

4. Sunrise Shell 1420 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

5. Bubbles and Bubbles 1914 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

6. Las Olas Chemist 1201 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

7. MoonDoggie’s Seaside Coffee Shack 1913 Cordova Rd., Fort Lauderdale

8. Aroma Kosher Market 8819 Stirling Rd., Cooper City