Attack of the Chains?

By Catherine Caruso, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Tiffany Wang

Every year since 2008 the New York City based nonprofit, Center for an Urban Future has compiled a tally of the number of national retail chains located across the city. Underpinning their analysis is the unspoken assumption that retail chains are somehow a detriment to the fabric of the city. In that regards they have some support.

“The unintended consequence of their [chain stores] victories through the 1970s and beyond,” writes The Geography of Nowhere author James Howard Kuntsler in a 2013 post in the Huffington Post, “was the total destruction of local economic networks, that is, Main Streets and downtowns, in effect destroying many of their own livelihoods.”

A number of films, such as Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, associate chain stores, like McDonalds, Bed Bath & Beyond, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart with the economic and cultural destruction of the communities in which they are located. In lieu of buying from national retailers, we’re told, that the best thing for local communities is to buy from local, independent retailers in what are called “buy local campaigns.”

There is some evidence suggesting that it may be better to buy local. In 2003 the Maine based Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that for every dollar spent at a local business, 45 cents stayed in the local community. Another nine percent stayed within the state. For chain stores, however, only 14 cents remained within the local community. The rest trickled out to the national management along with distance product suppliers. Their supposition does suggest that communities with chain stores would be economically stronger than those without them, and we wanted to see if this was the case in New York City.

We used Center for an Urban Future’s data on chain stores, and cross referenced it with income data to see if communities with higher incomes have fewer chain stores.

State of the Chains_Corrected

As you can tell, for the most part that’s exactly what we found. A few exceptions existed among middle income people but they’re within a reasonable margin of error. Generally speaking in New York City, if you make less than 44,000 dollars a year your neighborhood is going to be rife with chain stores, and if you’re making more than 84,5000 a year your neighborhood will have very little.

One word of caution: this doesn’t tell us why this correlation exists merely that it does exist. It could be that chain stores remove income from communities, or it could be cultural – a signal of gentrification is the emergence of local neighborhood shops. It could be that higher income individuals prefer to live in neighborhoods with fewer retail chains.