Mom-and-Pop Vs. Big-Chain Shopping: Is One Better?

In the following interview, we speak with Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck is an architect and city planner in Washington, D.C., oversaw the Mayors' Institute on City Design, and served on the Sustainability Task Force of the Department of Homeland Security.

While everyone loves a mom-and-pop shop, Speck points out that we also value the convenience and consistency we can expect from chains and mail order. The future of shopping probably has room for both large-scale retailers that offer expediency and smaller shops that focus more on the experience of shopping.

A transcript follows the video.

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Audience Member: One more question. I'm just assuming that you're not a big fan of Wal-Marts (NYSE: WMT  ) , Targets (NYSE: TGT  ) , lots of big-box stores, but what are your feelings on the mom-and-pop store on the corner, as opposed to an [ (NASDAQ: AMZN  ) ] that doesn't have that footprint, but still can get mass products to the consumers in big cities?

Jeff Speck: The question was -- yes I'm not a fan of Wal-Mart or big-box stores. I'm not, because I believe that their entire business model presupposes cheap, road-based transportation of both goods and people, and that if we didn't so subsidize that in our country they wouldn't be so successful in our country.

Then the question was, how do I feel about mom-and-pops, versus Amazon?

I haven't done the hard thinking about Amazon, and I don't want to, because I'm Amazon Prime and I love it to death.

Isaac Pino: It's addictive.

Speck: I do think -- I've been told by others who have more expertise than me -- that the efficiencies of making deliveries in a van to many houses a day make it actually fairly sustainable to be getting that stuff in the mail, as opposed to getting in the car and going to shops, as an individual purchaser. I'd be curious if anyone knows differently.

Clearly, everyone loves mom-and-pops. There's every reason to love mom-and-pops. What we've found is that the most successful Main Streets in the U.S. are about half mom-and-pops, and half chains. No one wants to go where it's only chains, but in fact no one wants to ... I buy my clothes from Banana Republic [a Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) ¬†company]. I know it fits me. I know I'm not going to have to deal with surprises. I think more and more Americans feel that way, so you have to have those shops to bring people downtown.

What we've seen in American retail is that -- perhaps this is a more useful answer for your question -- what we've seen in a lot of American retail is that there's the shopping that is purely expedient and serving a purpose that you need served, but then probably half the shopping you do and more than half the money you spend is for the experience.

Shopping is actually the main way that we entertain ourselves. The typical thing people do on holiday is shop, so the market has gone in two directions. It's gone toward the big boxes and the mail order, and it's gone toward the Main Streets that can offer that sort of experience.

People pay extra in order to have that experience, and that's why I think there's a continued viability of that inefficient model.

Pino: You can add retail analyst to your resume now.

Speck: Not really.

Pino: Anything else that you wanted to discuss before we wrap up?

Speck: I wanted to make sure I addressed all of these issues.

Pino: I did read the book. I don't suppose that my article did it justice, but it's excellent and it goes into a lot more depth, of course. I highly recommend it; it's an interesting read.

Speck: Are there any other questions?

There's lots of other things on this list I would like to talk about, but I don't want to ... what time is it?

Pino: Yeah, we should probably get wrapping up.

Speck: Oh, yeah. My wife's about to pick me up in the SUV.

Pino: All right, well, on that, thanks for coming. We really appreciate it. Thanks for your questions. Thanks a lot, Jeff.

Speck: Thank you all.

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