Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
For nearly two decades, Stacy Mitchell has tried to level a playing field she sees as tilted toward big retail.
The chichi clothing store Anthropologie has nearly 200 stores worldwide, and Stacy Mitchell thinks that's plenty.
What has earned her ire in particular is the twee retailer's pending arrival in Portland, Maine, where Mitchell grew up and now lives. This seaside city is often cited as one of America's most charming, thanks in large part to decades of regeneration spurred by local entrepreneurs. "Now that downtown is thriving," Mitchell says, "national chains have decided to get in on some of that action."
In a nutshell, it's the story of the American city today, where the political elite considers the arrival of national chains to signify the downtown's return to commercial relevance and fiscal well-being—a step toward regaining territory ceded to the suburbs many years ago. For Mitchell, it represents the erosion of one of the last places where independent businesses have, historically, held their ground.
Mitchell is a co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a think tank where she has worked for almost two decades. Her mission: help cities and towns understand the economic advantages of independent businesses—and assist local business owners in fighting off corporate rivals like Amazon.
By taking this message to forums as varied as Bloomberg Businessweek, city councils, small business conferences, and bookshelves, Mitchell has become a national advocate for a traditionally parochial issue. Betsy Burton, a Salt Lake City bookseller and activist, has dubbed her the independent movement's Joan of Arc.
In the past few years, Mitchell says, small businesses have experienced a surge of well-publicized support. Consumers have rallied to farmers' markets and neighborhood bookstores, reinforcing a localism movement with a few wins among a lot of losing causes. The number of independent bookstores in the U.S., for example, has grown by nearly 30 percent since 2009.
"It's enormously encouraging what's happened just in the past few years, in terms of public interest and support for independent business," Mitchell says. "There are signs that people want something else, that people have dissatisfaction with big retailers taking over the economy."
But, she says, the war between chains and independents won't be won by conscious consumers willing to drop an extra buck on a bacon egg & cheese at the local diner.
"The research I've done indicates that the problem for independent businesses is that the market is rigged, and it's rigged because people tilt the playing field," she says. "Essentially, large companies have been able to use their political clout to pass laws and regulations that expand their own market share and make it hard for independent businesses to survive."
Systemic forces are at work on a scale that dwarfs consumer preferences. The St. Louis region, for example, spent more than $2 billion between 1990 and 2007 subsidizing retail development, in the hopes of luring in national chains. The net job gain during that period was 5,400 jobs, meaning the region spent (at a minimum) $370,000 per retail job created.
Subsidies aimed at particular big-box stores can be even more galling to small-scale competitors. Interested in running a fishing or hunting shop? Try competing with Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's, which have raked in $2.2 billion in municipal subsidies over the past 15 years. Or running a bookstore in Pico Rivera, California, which was until recently paying more than $10,000 a month in rent payments on behalf of the local Borders.
Even the nation's transportation network, with its endless supply of strip-mall retail space, favors outlets with the brand recognition to attract eyeballs moving at 40 miles per hour.
Still, she says, there's reason to be optimistic. Local business alliances now exist in more than 150 cities and represent tens of thousands of businesses. "That's from basically zero, 15 years ago." Fast-food wage protests are gaining momentum. And the movement's success has come largely without aid from cities, which have yet (despite pols' ubiquitous small-business stump speeches) to throw their weight behind the cause.
In 2006, Mitchell helped found Portland Buy Local, whose organization now includes 350 independent businesses around town. On the home front, she has a good view of the challenge at hand. "One of the paradoxes is that people come to Portland because it's so unique and different from wherever they've come from," she notes, "but they gravitate towards places they recognize."
That might mean choosing Anthropologie over local department store Renys, "a Maine Adventure" since 1949.