Stacy Mitchell

Bogus chain store study ignores small biz benefits



Earlier this month, San Francisco’s Office of Economic Analysis waded into the debate over whether the city should beef up its policy restricting the spread of chain stores. In a new study, the OEA concludes that the city’s regulations are harming the local economy and that adding additional restrictions would only do more damage. But this sweeping conclusion, hailed by proponents of formula retail, rests on a deeply flawed analysis. The study is riddled with data problems so significant as to nullify its conclusions.

San Francisco is the only city of any significant size where “formula” businesses, defined as retail stores or restaurants that have 10 or more outlets, must obtain a special permit to locate in a neighborhood business district. The law’s impact, in one sense at least, is readily apparent: Independent businesses account for about two-thirds of the retail square footage and market share in San Francisco, compared to only about one-quarter nationally. Although chains have been gaining ground in San Francisco, the city far outstrips New York, Chicago, and other major cities in the sheer numbers of homegrown grocers, bookstores, hardware stores, and other unique businesses that line its streets.

San Francisco’s policy has gaps, however, which have prompted a slew of recent proposals to amend the law. Members of the Board of Supervisors have proposed a variety of changes, such as extending the policy to cover more commercial districts (it only applies in neighborhood business districts) and broadening the definition of what counts as a formula business.

The OEA presents its study as an injection of hard economic data into this policy debate. There are three pieces to its analysis. Let’s take each in turn.

First, the OEA reports that chains provide more jobs than independent retailers do. It presents U.S. Census data showing that retailers with fewer than 10 outlets employ 3.2 workers per $1 million in sales, while chains (10 or more outlets) employ 4.3 people.

One major problem with this statistic is that the OEA includes car dealerships. Retail studies generally exclude the auto sector, because car dealers differ in fundamental ways from other retailers and car sales account for such a large chunk of consumer spending that they can skew one’s results. The OEA’s analysis is a classic example of this. Because the vast majority of car dealerships are independently owned and employ relatively few people per $1 million in sales, by including them, the OEA drags down the employment figure for local retailers overall.

If you take out car dealers, which are not subject to San Francisco’s formula business policy anyway, and also remove “non-store” retailers, a category that includes enterprises like heating oil dealers and mail order houses, a different picture emerges. Retailers with fewer than 10 outlets employ 5.3 people per $1 million in sales, compared to only 4.5 for those with 10 or more locations.

The actual difference is even a bit more than this, because chains handle their own distribution, employing people to work in warehouses, while independents typically rely on other businesses for this. And, of course, a portion of the jobs chain stores create are not local jobs; they are housed back at corporate headquarters. The OEA fails to mention either of these fairly obvious caveats.

The superior ability of non-formula businesses to create jobs is notably evident across many of the categories that generate most of the city’s formula business applications, including clothing, grocery, and casual dining. The only exception is drugstores, a category in which chains appear to be supporting more jobs. But even this may not be a true exception, since most independent pharmacies focus almost exclusively on medicine, while chain drugstores are hybrid convenience stores, employing people to ring up sales of cigarettes and greeting cards.

The second and third pieces of the OEA’s analysis are linked together. The study concedes that, compared to chains, independents circulate more of their revenue in the local area, creating additional economic activity and jobs. But, it contends, prices at chains are 17 percent lower; enough, according to the OEA’s math, to outweigh the economic benefits of this recirculation.

On the lighter side of this seesaw calculation sits the OEA’s estimate of how much money local retailers circulate in the city’s economy. This estimate is notably smaller than what other studies have found. When I asked Dan Houston, a principal with Civic Economics, why his firm’s studies show that independent businesses have a bigger impact, he pointed to two areas where his firm’s figures differ from the OEA’s. One is labor.

“We’re finding that local wages and operating income [at independent businesses] are much bigger, closer to 25 percent [of expenses] rather than the 15 percent the OEA finds,” said Houston.

The other is spending on inventory. Civic Economics has found that independent retailers and restaurants source some of their goods locally, whereas the OEA assumes that all of this spending leaves the area.

Sitting on the heavier side of the OEA’s seesaw is its conclusion that chains charge lower prices. As definitive as its 17 percent figure sounds and as pivotal as it is to the study’s math, it is a highly questionable number. It’s based on a limited sampling of prices in which large swaths of the retail sector, including apparel stores and restaurants, were excluded.

“I just hate to see a statistic like that being used when it is so limited in what was being measured,” said Matt Cunningham, another principal at Civic Economics.

It only takes a slight adjustment of these wobbly figures to produce the opposite conclusion: that formula businesses do more economic harm than good. All one has to do to tip the OEA’s seesaw in the other direction is to assume a slightly larger recirculation of revenue on the part of independents and a slightly lower price advantage on the part of chains. (Just dropping the price difference to 14 percent will do it.)

Perhaps the worst aspect of the OEA’s study is that it seems to float in space, untethered to what’s actually happening on the ground. Many of the chains that are clamoring to open in the city’s neighborhoods are high-end retailers whose products carry a price premium. Their arrival typically drives up commercial rents, making it harder for businesses that sell basic low-margin goods to survive.

Nor does the OEA attempt to situate its analysis in the context of several peer-reviewed studies that don’t just model the potential impacts of corporate consolidation, but actually track them. In a study published in Economic Development Quarterly, for example, economists Stephan Goetz and David Fleming report that counties that have a larger share of their economy in the hands of locally owned businesses have experienced higher median household income growth than places dominated by large corporations.

The OEA’s study will not be the city’s only analytical look at its formula business policy. The Planning Department has commissioned its own study, preliminary findings of which were released this week. Among other useful statistics, the draft notes that most formula business applications are approved and fully one-quarter of the retail space in the city’s neighborhoods is now occupied by chains, which suggests the permitting process is not as unfriendly to formula businesses as the law’s opponents contend.

Still, this figure is much smaller than in San Francisco’s more centralized commercial districts, which are not covered by the policy. Here, the chains’ share of the available square footage stands at 53 percent and growing.


Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.


Corporations co-opt “local”


HSBC, one of the biggest banks on the planet, has taken to calling itself "the world’s local bank." Winn-Dixie, a 500-outlet supermarket chain, recently launched a new ad campaign under the tagline "Local flavor since 1956." The International Council of Shopping Centers, a global consortium of mall owners and developers, is pouring millions of dollars into television ads urging people to "Shop Local" — at their nearest mall. Even Wal-Mart is getting in on the act, hanging bright green banners over its produce aisles that simply say "Local."

Hoping to capitalize on growing public enthusiasm for all things local, some of the world’s biggest corporations are brashly laying claim to the evocative word.

This new variation on corporate greenwashing — local-washing — is, like the buy-local movement itself, most advanced in the context of food. Hellmann’s, the mayonnaise brand owned by the processed-food giant Unilever, is test-driving a new "Eat Real, Eat Local" initiative in Canada. The ad campaign seems aimed partly at enhancing the brand by simply associating Hellmann’s with local food. But it also makes the claim that Hellmann’s is local, because most of its ingredients come from North America.

It’s not the only industrial food company muscling in on local. Frito-Lay’s new television commercials use farmers to pitch the company’s potato chips as local food, while Foster Farms, one of the largest producers of poultry products in the country, is labeling packages of chicken and turkey "locally grown."

Corporate local-washing is now spreading well beyond food. Barnes & Noble, the world’s top seller of books, has launched a video blog under the banner "All bookselling is local." The site, which features "local book news" and recommendations from employees of stores in such evocative-sounding locales as Surprise, Ariz., and Wauwatosa, Wis., seems designed to disguise what Barnes & Noble is — a highly centralized corporation in which decisions about what books to stock and feature are made by a handful of buyers — and to present the chain instead as a collection of independent-minded booksellers.

Across the country, scores of shopping malls, chambers of commerce, and economic development agencies are also appropriating the phrase "buy local" to urge consumers to patronize nearby malls and big-box stores. In March, leaders of a buy-local campaign in Fresno assembled in front of the Fashion Fair Mall for a kickoff press conference. Flanked by storefronts bearing brand names such as Anthropologie and the Cheesecake Factory, officials from the Economic Development Corporation of Fresno County explained that choosing to buy local helps the region’s economy. For anyone confused by this display, the campaign and its media partners, including Comcast and the McClatchy-owned Fresno Bee, followed the press conference with more than $250,000 worth of radio, TV, and print ads that spelled it out: "Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores — you name it."


In one way, all of this corporate local-washing is good news for local economy advocates: it represents the best empirical evidence yet that the grassroots movement for locally produced goods and independently owned businesses now sweeping the country is having a measurable impact on the choices people make.

"Think of the millions of dollars these big companies spend on research and focus groups. They wouldn’t be doing this on a hunch," observed Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association, a trade group which represents about 1,700 independent bookstores and last year launched IndieBound, an initiative that helps locally owned businesses communicate their independence and community roots.

Signs that consumer preferences are trending local abound. Locally grown food has soared in popularity. The United States is now home to 4,385 active farmers markets, a third of which were started since 2000. Food co-ops and neighborhood greengrocers are on the rise. Driving is down, while data from several metropolitan regions show that houses located within walking distance of small neighborhood stores have held value better than those isolated in the suburbs where the nearest gallon of milk is a five-mile drive to Target.

In city after city, independent businesses are organizing and creating the beginnings of what could become a powerful counterweight to the big business lobbies that have long dominated public policy. Local business alliances — such as San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance, Stay Local! New Orleans, and Phoenix’s Local First Arizona — have now formed in more than 130 cities and collectively count about 30,000 businesses as members.

In San Francisco, the buy-local movement is strong. Voters and elected officials have erected bureaucratic barriers to new chain stores, and citizens have used those tools to fend off even respectable chains such as American Apparel, which earlier this year tried unsuccessfully to open a store on über-local Valencia Street. The San Francisco Small Business Commission runs a buy-local campaign that was created in December by such unlikely partners as the Guardian, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (see "Shop local, City Hall," 5/6/09).

Through grassroots buy-local and local-first campaigns, these alliances are calling on people to choose independent businesses and local products more often. They also are making the case that doing so is critical to rebuilding middle-class prosperity, averting environmental collapse, keeping more money in the local economy, and ensuring that our daily lives are not smothered by corporate uniformity.

Surveys and anecdotal reports from business owners suggest that these initiatives are changing spending patterns. While the federal Department of Commerce reported that overall retail sales plunged almost 10 percent over the holidays, a survey in January by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (where I work) found that independent retailers in cities with buy-local campaigns saw sales drop an average of just 3 percent from the previous year. Many respondents attributed this relative good fortune to the fact that more people are deliberately seeking out locally owned businesses.


None of this has slipped the notice of corporate executives and the consumer research firms that advise them. Several of these firms have begun to track the localization trend. In its annual consumer survey, the New York–based branding firm BBMG found that the number of people reporting that it was "very important" to them whether a product was grown or produced locally jumped from 26 to 32 percent in the last year alone. "It’s not just a small cadre of consumers anymore," said founding partner Mitch Baranowski.

Corporate-oriented buy-local campaigns that define "local" as the nearest Lowe’s or Gap store are now being rolled out in cities nationwide. Some represent desperate bids by shopping malls to survive the recession and fend off online competition. Others are the work of chambers of commerce trying to remain relevant. Still others are the half-baked plans of municipal officials casting about for some way to stop the steep drop in sales tax revenue.

Many of these Astroturf campaigns are modeled directly on grassroots initiatives. "They copy our language and tactics," said Michelle Long, board president of the San Francisco–based Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and executive director of Sustainable Connections, a seven-year-old coalition of 600 independent businesses in northwest Washington state that runs a very visible and — according to market research — very successful local-first program. "I get calls from chambers and other groups who say, ‘We want to do what you are doing.’ It took me a while to realize that what they had in mind was not what we do. Once I realized, I started asking them, ‘What do you mean by local?’ "

Examples abound. In Northern California, the Arcata Chamber of Commerce is producing "Shop Local" ads that look similar to the Humboldt County Independent Business Alliance’s "Go Local" ads, except they feature both independents and chains. Spokane’s "Buy Local" program, started by the chamber, is open to any business in town, including big-box stores. Log on to the "Buy Local" Web site created by the chamber in Chapel Hill, N.C., and you will find Wal-Mart among the listings.

But there’s a huge difference — even on strictly economic grounds — between shopping at a local chain store and a locally owned store. Studies have shown that $45 of every $100 spent at locally owned stores stays in the community, helping other local businesses and supporting government services, whereas only about $13 of every $100 spent in chain stores remains local.

When the city of Santa Fe, N.M., decided to launch a campaign to encourage people to shop locally, the Santa Fe Alliance, a coalition of more than 500 locally owned businesses that has been running a buy-local initiative for several years, signed on. At the kickoff in March, the alliance’s director, Vicki Pozzebon, emphasized the economic impact of shopping at a locally owned business versus a chain.

"After that, the city asked me not to push the $45 versus $13, but just say ‘local.’ " Pozzebon said.

The city’s message, according to Kate Noble, a city staffer who runs the program, is that shopping at Wal-Mart is fine, as long as it’s not But Pozzebon said, "It has only diluted our message and confused people."

These sales tax–driven campaigns may well be doing more harm to local economies than good, according to Jeff Milchen, co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance. "If you encourage people to shop at a big-box store that takes sales away from an independent business, you’re just funneling more dollars out of town."

The irony of trying to solve declining city revenue by trying to get people to shop at the local mall is that the mall itself may be the problem. While many California cities are facing budget cuts and even bankruptcy, Berkeley has managed to post a small increase in revenue. Part of the reason, according to city officials, is that Berkeley has more or less said no to chains and is instead a city of locally owned businesses that primarily serve local residents. That creates a much more stable revenue base. Berkeley hasn’t benefited from the temporary boom that a new regional mall might create, but neither has it gone bust.
Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project ( and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses (Beacon, 2006). This story was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), of which the Guardian is a member, and is also running in other AAN papers this month.