In Praise of Chain Stores

Virginia Postrel, a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, wrote an essay in the magazine's December issue called "In Praise of Chain Stores."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is the busiest retail season of the year, and it's when chain stores really make their money. Now, to some big box stores in America have become the object of disdain, cookie cutter monstrosities that offer the same goods from Banger, Maine to Orange County, California, and to these days Tokyo too.

But not to Virginia Postrel. Her essay in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly is called "In Praise of Chain Stores." She's a contributing editor there; also the author of "The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness." Virginia Postrel joins us from Dallas. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. VIRGINIA POSTREL (Contributing Editor, Atlantic Monthly): Great to be with you.

SIMON: Now, where do you think the complaints, at least that you hear, about chain stores seem to be coming from?

Ms. POSTREL: Well, the problem with chain stores is they make every place seem the same, that America is too homogenous, you can't tell what city you're in. Look at all these - you see the Banana Republic and Best Buy everywhere. A lot of the critique about homogeneity is based on the idea that we want places to be exotic when we go to them. We want them to have local color, and we want that local color to hit us over the head.

Most people don't spend their lives traveling a lot. What they do is they stay, essentially, wherever they live and work. And the real question in terms of the retail environment or restaurants in their life is what choices do they have available to them where they are. And what chain stores actually do is make things more similar across different locales, but they provide more variety within a specific location.

SIMON: You take a specific location - Chandler, Arizona, which is a suburb of Phoenix. And I just began to write down some of the stores that you list off: Bed, Bad and Beyond; Chipotle; Petco; Best Buy; Lowes; Apple. All of those places are there in Chandler, Arizona.

Ms. POSTREL: If you hate chain stores, it's the chain store nightmare. But the fact that they've already got all of these chain stores means that they don't have to wait to cultivate the local entrepreneurial talent to come up with a new idea, develop it into a business, etc. That's all wonderful. That's where these chain stores come from originally; they start out somewhere. Particularly in a fast growing, essentially new city, it would take years and years and years before you could offer the variety that people in Chandler enjoy today if you had to depend only on local businesses.

SIMON: How do you react to the argument, Ms. Postrel, that good, smaller scale, distinctive businesses have been just driven out of business by chain stores?

Ms. POSTREL: I think really well run, really beloved, distinctive local businesses in fact can compete quite well with chain stores, for the very fact that they do offer something different. As they created density, retailing chains can provide the sort of critical mass that's necessary to allow local retailers that are more specialized to have a big enough audience to succeed.

SIMON: Virginia Postrel of the Atlantic. Here essay "In Phrase of Chain Stores" appears in the magazine's December issue. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Ms. POSTREL: Thank you.

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