The Rise of Chain Store Chic in New York

November 8th, 2010 by Bianca Seidman

East River Plaza, planted in the far reaches of East Harlem next to the busy lanes of the FDR Drive, has something common for most U.S. cities, but groundbreaking for Manhattan—big, national chain stores.

When the super-sized shopping mall officially opened this summer, it was a big change for the city with so many individually owned small storefronts, affectionately called “mom-and-pop shops.” New Yorkers have defended those smaller stores fiercely over the years as an integral part of the city’s character that could be ruined if large, national chain stores were allowed.

But Mayor Bloomberg was a proponent of the East River Plaza.  He said residents want to have the variety and discounted prices that large, national chains like Costco and Target can bring.  Of the few people who responded to a survey about chain stores in New York, 60% said that chain stores should be allowed and 40% said they were neutral:  neither opposed, nor in favor of them.  No respondents said chain stores should not be allowed.

chain stores new york

Do you think chain stores should be allowed in New York City?

While big-box stores might be new to Manhattan, national chains have been spreading through the boroughs for many years.  In fact, there is such a large variety and vast number of chain stores throughout New York City that there’s an annual report about the hundreds of chain stores led by the 429 Dunkin’ Donuts and a host of fast food, pharmacy and other retail shops.

The pervasiveness of these chains has sparked debate and reflection about the city’s loss of mom-and-pop shops that helped characterize the neighborhoods.

Almost everyone who took the survey said they shop chain stores, even big box stores, which would compete with the largest variety of mom-and-pop shops.

In which type of New York City chain stores would you be most likely to shop?

New Yorkers seem resigned to the chain stores, even if they are not always in favor of them.  It does depend on the store.  There is a feeling that if the chain stores must come, they should be socially and fiscally responsible.  Some city residents have been active in protesting Wal-mart with specific campaigns because of what they see as questionable business and labor practices.  But big-box retailers with higher ratings for social responsibility and service, like Target, seem to be more welcome by survey respondents.  Target was the #1 chain store they shopped.

Where does all this leave the ever-smaller number of mom-and-pop shops that provide that character to the city streets?  Most survey respondents agreed that they should have special protections to help them survive tough economic conditions and chain store competition, such as rent stabilization or tax breaks.  These are some of the allowances respondents would like New York City’s mom-and-pops to receive:

Business tax breaks 86%
Rent stabilization 86%
Payroll tax breaks 43%
Restrictions on chain store locations 21%
None of the above 7%

A few people added that the chain stores’ social and labor practices should be monitored closely and that they should be required to give back to the communities.

Reasons why respondents were for or against national chain stores in New York City ranged from, “I live for Target ’cause it’s cheap and has everything,” to the idea that chain stores, “…negatively impact New York City’s uniqueness.”  Some added that national retailers like Ikea and Target do charitable work and provide necessary goods that are affordable, which makes them good additions to New York City’s retail landscape.

One of the many respondents who supports Target argued in favor of large chains saying, “New York is one of the most expensive cities on earth; who would object to stores with flimsy, foreign-made goods at rock-bottom prices?”

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