The Block of Horror: Chainstores Swallow Berkeley

Looking at the block of Shattuck Avenue between Durant and Channing streets, there is no way to tell that you’re standing in Berkeley, California, rather than in Kansas City, San Diego, Columbus or Atlanta. Like downtown strips across the globe, Berkeley too is increasingly occupied by unbroken rows of chainstores, populated by underpaid, de-skilled, part-time workers, and controlled from afar by massive corporations. The Block of Horror in downtown Berkeley features a Barnes & Noble unit, a Jamba Juice smoothie counter, a Blockbuster Video and an antiseptic High Tech Burrito. At least so far, it is one of the few blocks of unbroken chainstores in Berkeley.

Unfortunately, the Block of Horror is far from an aberration: most new businesses that open in Berkeley are chains, and chains are gradually replacing locally owned shops. In the last 5 years, downtown Berkeley has gained a Starbuck’s coffee, an Eddie Bauer, a Ben & Jerry’s, a Taco Bell, a Ross Dress For Less, Ms. Fields Cookies, and a Walgreens. If things keep going in the same direction, far from being a relative rarity, the Block of Horror may soon became the norm in Berkeley, as virtually identical blocks already represent the norm most everywhere else in the United States. Even in the world.

It is especially surprising to see the Block of Horror in a town with nationally known, locally-run bookstores and restaurants, and within blocks of a really impressive locally owned video store. Twenty or thirty years ago, Berkeley residents unceasingly fought chainstores when they appeared, such as the Gap and Tower Records on Telegraph, which were both repeatedly protested, boycotted and even looted. The new wave of chainstores is being welcomed, even celebrated, by Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean and downtown landlord interests. They can’t seem to tell the difference between revitalizing downtown with more businesses, and sowing the seeds of the downtown’s destruction by bringing in chainstores which will suck the downtown dry, and which ultimately have no commitment to the success of downtown Berkeley over the success of any of their outlets in any random mall in Iowa. It is highly ironic that local Chambers of Commerce like the one in Berkeley actually want to bring in chainstores, since the chains’ agenda is to eliminate all local businesses, centralizing decision making and the economy into distant corporate board rooms. For downtown property owners, chainstores are a boon because they can pay higher rents. These higher rents, together with relentless competition from chains so large that they can win price breaks from suppliers, are precisely what drives locally owned stores under.

The increasing success of chainstores is part of a trend whereby consumption is increasingly centrally managed. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, factory owners learned how to centrally organize production for greater efficiency. One-hundred and fifty years later, factory technology is incredibly efficient, and the heads of industry have now turned to the management of consumers to achieve the highest rates of consumption using the least inputs of resources. Chainstores, and increasingly internet commerce, represent the highest technology of managed consumerism.

Scientific market research (together with mass media advertising) determine what the consumers will buy. Massive corporations, funded with billions from Wall Street, achieve economies of scale by vertically integrating purchasing, distribution and retail, or by cutting sweetheart deals with producers. On the local level, retail sales are conducted through chainstores units, centrally designed and managed to standards established through research. Each unit is connected to the central office using computers and satellites with efficiency never before possible. The chain’s average wages are lower since fewer skilled employees are required to operate a chainstore.

By contrast, locally owned retail outlets are highly inefficient because they can’t order by the truck full, they don’t have access to national market research and advertising, and their design and marketing decisions are made unscientifically, according to individual taste. According to chain-think, independent stores must be replaced so that chains can gain market share and dominate.

A community that loses all local control or contact with the functions of the economy–production, consumption, meeting human needs–is doomed as a community. Globalization of the economy has repeatedly demonstrated that multi-national corporations have no commitment to any particular place, and will remove jobs or services as soon as it becomes economically attractive to do so. A community dominated by chains and massive multi-national employers cannot exercise any local, democratic control over what labor and environmental responsibilities businesses have to the community. Instead, unaccountable corporate boards gain unfettered power over how or whether local residents will work, and what they will consume.

Chainstores rarely invest in the communities in which they locate. Instead, every dollar spent at a chain is paid as profit to investors or is concentrated at its corporate office for more investment in new outlets elsewhere.

As chainstores increasingly dominate retail, local character and the possibility for innovation are lost. Local opportunities to break out of the corporate rat race by using local currencies or by setting up cooperatives or collectives are frustrated. It becomes increasingly difficult to talk to the person in charge who can make changes.

To preserve democracy and communities worth living in, chainstores must be fought. And this doesn’t just mean not buying from them. Its time for creative and militant tactics to attack these blights on the community. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Barnes & Noble

Type of Business: Books

Number of Units in the Chain: 1,011

Crimes against Freedom: B&N is the largest bookstore chain on the planet with annual sales exceeding $3 billion. It recently announced plans to merge with the world’s largest wholesale book distributor, Ingram. Together, B&N and Ingram would control 40 percent of all books sold in America. B&N and fellow mega-chain Borders together have driven thousands of independent bookstores out of the market, replacing them with bland corporate culture, lower wages, less local character and less local control. As the chains have exploded, market share for independent booksellers has dropped from 24.2 percent in 1993 to 17.2 in 1997. These chains won’t carry books (and ideas) published by small presses unless the small presses can afford to print massive runs, subject to massive returns if the books don’t sell in a few weeks.

Locally owned Alternatives: (not complete list) Black Oak books, 1491 Shattuck, 486-0698 Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave, 845-9096 Dark Carnival, 3086 Claremont, 654-7323 Ecology Center, 2530 San Pablo, 548-3402 Gaia books, 1400 Shattuck Ave, 548-4172 Mama Bears, 6536 Telegraph Ave., 428-9684 Moes Books, 2476 Telegraph, 849-2087 Shakespeare’s, 2499 Telegraph, 841-8916 Sierra Club, 6014 College Ave, 658-7470 Walden Pond, 3314 Grand Ave., 832-4438

Jamba Juice

Type of Business: Smoothies Number of Units in the Chain: 221 (including 96 stores in recently acquired Zuka Juice chain) Crimes against Freedom: JJ is the nation’s largest smoothie chain, hoping to cash in on the exploding market, which was expected to have total sales of $504 million for 1998. JJ had sales of over $55 million last ye
ar. Since starting in 1995 with early venture capital funding from Howard Schultz, president of Starbucks, the chain’s founder Kirk Perron has been fond of making pretentious claims: We do a lot to create a passion around the higher purpose, which is really about enriching people’s lives. Locally owned Alternatives: (not complete list) Juice Bar Collective, 2114 Vine, 548-8473 Smart Alec’s, Durant & Telegraph

Blockbuster Video

Type of Business: Video rental

Number of Units in the Chain: 4,438 in US

2,005 internationally in 26 countries.

Crimes against Freedom: Blockbuster is the largest video chain on Earth with 38 million people in the US holding cards. It boasts of operating a store within a 10 minute drive of virtually every major neighborhood in the United States. Their mission is to be the global leader in rentable home entertainment. After only 12 years in business, it controls one-third of the video market in the US. Blockbuster’s third quarter 1998 revenues were up 13.3 percent after the chain worked out deals with Hollywood studios to get hundreds of copies of each movie on a profit-sharing basis, permitted Blockbuster to avoid paying up-front costs. These deals, unavailable to independent video stores are putting thousands of independent video stores out of business, and may be challenged in a Federal anti-trust suit.

Locally owned Alternatives: (not complete list) Good Vibrations, 22504 San Pablo, 841-8987 Movie Image, 64 Shattuck Sq, 649-0296 Rasputin Video, 2411 Telegraph, 486-2690 Videots, 2988 College, 540-0222

High Tech Burrito

Type of Business: Food

Number of Units in the Chain: 16 Crimes against Freedom: The so-far smaller chain, which tries to take the Mexican out of burritos, recently pioneered technology to permit people to pay with their ATM card if they let a computer scan their fingerprints. We’ll see if this format eventually makes it big.

Locally owned Alternatives: (not complete list) La Cascada, 2164 Center St., 704-8688 Mi Tierra, 1401 University, 841-1544 Taqueria La Familia 2971 Shattuck, 548-3420