Main Street

Main Street will defeat Big Box in David vs. Goliath battle

I’ve heard that big box stores will kill off my favourite local shops. I’ve been told that shopping giants, like Wal Mart, Target and Home Depot, will never stop growing. And I’ve been assured that “For Lease” signs on Main Street are something I’m going to have to get used to. I’ve even read articles that claim we should board up our small retail spaces and convert them to homes.

I have no intention of buying into the hype. Quite frankly, if I were them; the purveyors of giant warehouses of cheap stuff – I’d be extremely worried.

What do you feel when you drive up to that massive, mostly empty parking lot on the edge of town? What inspires you when the double doors spring open in front of you and the smell of plastic greets your nostrils? How does the cavernous environment make you feel connected to your community? And what kind of meaningful interactions do you have with the people who work there?

In the long aisles, at the jammed cash register, and on the trip back to your isolated car, how do you feel? How about the drive to and from this superstore?

You may take for granted the notion that big stores will continue to grow, and little shops are headed to their demise. But things are changing.

Not long ago, we lived in cities that emptied out at night, giving way to suburban lives. People sought large yards and put up with loading their mini vans with gas to head off to the nearest shopping mall.

That was then. This is now.

In his article, Why urban demographers are right about the trend toward downtowns and walkable suburbs, Kaid Benfield writes:

“This decrease in outer suburban development isn’t “urbanist wishful thinking”:  it is fact.  It’s also fact that central cities are growing again, after decades of decline – and, for the first time in a century, growing at a faster rate than their suburbs.

Population adjusted vehicle miles driven. dshort.com/switchboard.nrdc.org

Population adjusted vehicle miles driven. dshort.com/switchboard.nrdc.org

Benfield points to annual decreases in vehicle miles driven (population adjusted) that peaked in 2005, and have now reduced to levels last seen in 1995.

Why are people seeking more urban lives, and talking about walkability scores before purchasing homes? Why are they buying smaller cars and speaking about bike lanes and transit lines rather than highways and bigger roads?

We are fed up with impersonal box stores, plunked down in the middle of nowhere. Tired of everything being supersized and “in driving distance.” And we are finally rejecting the broken model everywhere rather than embracing it. We don’t talk about superstores as places we enjoy going, or like to shop in. We deal with them as another tough fact of our lives, but the revolt is starting to take shape, and we are leading it.

Yes, we still can’t escape the near constant predictions of the death of small independent shops. In the UK, the decay of the High Street is a never ending discussion that greets newspaper readers every morning with a gloomy forecast.

In actual fact, the large, impersonal shopping experience is what is dying.

According to a 2014 article titled, America’s Shopping Malls Are Dying A Slow, Ugly Death, the news is bad ,

“About 15% of U.S. malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space within the next 10 years, according to Green Street Advisors, a real estate and REIT analytics firm. That’s an increase from less than two years ago, when the firm predicted 10% of malls would fail or be converted.”

The article goes on to state:

” Within 15 to 20 years, retail consultant Howard Davidowitz expects as many as half of America’s shopping malls to fail.”

But while many retail analysts point to online shopping and supercentres as the winners in this battle, it seems to me that they are mistaken. Think about it… Big box stores, surrounded by parking wastelands, are actually a worse model than shopping malls. In terms of employment, they hire fewer people than their small business equivalents. In fact, according to an Intuit Small Business Innovation Study, The 77 million people that make up the US small business workforce would rank as the 17th most populous country in the world, just ahead of Iran.

As we seek urban, car-free lives, we will reject these locations and lead a movement back to our local hardware stores, butchers and bakeries. We will want to walk into our neighbourhood fruit market, pick up freshly baked bread and say hi to our friendly merchants as we wander in and out with our children.

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We will fall in love with our sidewalks, pretty storefronts, and lovely streetscapes. We will come for festivals and events, meet our neighbours, and never want to return to that previous life. We will see those relics on our way in and out of town, and wonder why they were ever built.

They weren’t there for our community projects, didn’t chip in to plant flowers and never returned to our community what they took out. And as quickly as they turned their backs on our pretty Main Streets some years ago, we will reject their giant flashing lights and empty parking lots.

And when they see the future and seek to re-connect with a real community, we will welcome them with open arms.

About Darryl Kaplan

Darryl Kaplan is a public speaker, author and advocate who believes that the BIG IDEA will save Main Street and create a new revolution in local living. An entrepreneur with a passion for small business and retail, Kaplan founded the Baby Point Gates Business Improvement Area in Toronto, and currently sits as its Chair. He was elected to the Executive Committee of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas - an organization that represents 81 BIAs and 35,000 small businesses. A multiple award winner in communications, magazine writing and editing, Kaplan has had hundreds of columns and editorials published nationally.

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