Friday, May 27, 2011

The Blurring Burbs

There was a time in the aviation sector when the "Big Four" referred to Eastern, TWA, United and American Airlines. Everybody else was a bit player hunkered down in some far-flung corner of the country but the Big Four covered nearly all bases. Dying airlines and talks of monopolies reached Capital Hill as many raised concerns of a small group of competing airlines serving the nation while having too much power in the way of fares and frequencies along the way. As I drove home from work one evening I came to the conclusion that the fear mongers were not paying as much attention to the retail sector as they were to the airlines.

There used to be about 15 unique airline brands offering flights between New York and California, the bread-and-butter run for just about any airline wanting to call itself one. Now there is maybe six. Compare that to the average suburb in the United States but the difficulty with finding monopolies in the retail sector is that there are so many parts to retail, petroleum, restaurants, green grocers, department stores, electronics and home improvement. Imagine if dry cleaners ever franchised. "I get my cleaning at So-And-So's" and everyone from Boston to Burbank knows what you're talking about!

No matter where I am in my metropolitan area I run across the same names. McDonald's, Exxon, Bank of America, Home Depot and Best Buy. They bring with them their respective competitors at nearly every turn, like Burger King, Wendy's, Lowe's, Shell and Wells Fargo. The eat-in restaurants are no better with household names like Olive Garden, Chili's, TGI Fridays, Chipotle, Outback and even Morton's. I see it everywhere. Out of all of these choices there still seems to be very few within each sector to choose from. The ones lining the main thoroughfares are the usual suspects from one end of the country to the other. Shopping? Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, JC Penney's, Macy's, Nordstrom's and Bloomingdales.

The reality is there are a decent number of regional favorites in just about every category for the locals to choose from and to keep the big boys honest but herein lies the paradox. Those passing through have never heard of them and are probably reluctant to try something they're unfamiliar with. The only way to increase their profile is to join the ranks of the national brands and further homogenize the American landscape. Look what happened to Cracker Barrel and Chiki-Fil-A.

The one thing I have noticed is that green grocers for the most part have kept their local identities. That doesn't mean, however, that they haven't gone corporate, though. Los Angeles has Ralph's and Pavilions, Chicago has Jewel-Osco, Washington/Baltimore has Giant and the Southeast is saturated with Publix, Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion. Over all of those are Albertsons, Kroger and Safeway brands, the latter alone owning Randall's, Vons', Tom Thumb and Genuardi's, some 1700 stores across the country plus Carrs in Alaska! The most interesting name of all? Family owned Schnuck's of St. Louis.

Yea, I know, kinda hard to get jones'd up on supermarkets but other than them is there anything left truly unique about your hometown that can't be found anywhere else in the country? All the China Dragon, China Pearl, China Garden and Taste of China buffets don't do it either and be careful: there is or just might be an In - N - Out Burger coming soon to a location near you.

Gotta go!

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