The last twenty years have seen the rise of the high street chain store in America and Britain. In 1998 Starbucks made the leap across the Atlantic and entered the UK in the form of 56 shops. As of 2022, that number has reached 1,134 locations in 450 cities; an increase of 2025 per cent. This is the kind of expansion that any CEO would drool over. In the States, Dollar General had 8,194 stores in 2007, and in just 14 years grew that number to 18,190 making it the chain with the most physical locations in the whole of the USA.

Interesting numbers, but why should we care? Surely these are just cases of businesses being run well and enjoying their well-deserved success? To that, the answer is … well … Yes. No matter what people say about big chains, they are just well-run businesses. One main advantage is that due to their size they can often afford to be a bit, or in some cases substantially, cheaper than their independent competitors. But is their success just down to the price? We all know it’s not.

The Downside of Quality Control

When I go into a McDonald’s in London it is almost exactly the same as going into one in Texas. Maybe the building will be slightly different or a couple of menu items might be special depending on where you are, but ultimately, it’s the same place. The service and the style are almost identical to the last, minute, detail. Thanks to Macdonald’s world-spanning corporate training program, quality is maintained. And let’s face it, that’s really comforting. People like consistency, and being consistent is the one thing big chains deliver on.

So if chains are so great, what’s the problem? Well, that’s the thing, all that consistent style and service and products are a double-edged sword.

Let’s say you want a burger, but not a Big Mac or a Whopper. Whilst you like both of them you want something a bit juicier, a bit more special than the same-old burgers you’re used to. Obviously, you might have to pay a bit more, but for something less basic you will want an independent restaurant. Independents not only offer something unique for the palate, but they also provide one-of-a-kind venues. Even if the restaurant itself has a couple of locations, it is unlikely they will be near identical. And this is precisely where independents win:  Individuality.

The War Within

The fight between the uniqueness of independents and the consistency of chains perfectly sums up the war within us. People love ‘the known’ — it’s safe and secure and holds no surprises. There is contentment in something always being the same.

However, being human and capricious, we also crave uniqueness and the ability to talk about new experiences. Independents come with the luxury and promise of offering something completely different from what we’re used to. In the design industry, for instance, independent retailers are able to get to know their clients’ particular needs and meet them more ethically — something that big chains struggle with.

Here we come to the biggest problem with chains. Don’t hate them for no reason. Admit it, sometimes they are better. After all, they didn’t sprout by magic. We let them because we liked them and kept using them. Chains, arguably, deserve their success for having won us over.

Too Big to Handle?

Amazon is probably the first choice we think of when we think of successful big businesses. Yet each year we hear how its workers are prevented from unionising, or unable to take proper bathroom breaks. And it’s not alone when it comes to questionable practices. In 2013, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that Tesco’s burgers contained horsemeat.

Naturally, independents are not free from scandal either. The difference is that when they do something ethically amiss, they usually don’t make it out alive. Big chains do. When you have the money to open in multiple locations at once as soon as you enter a new country, you also have the money to stand a little bad press.

So where does this leave us, the consumers? Chains and independents come with their own unique bag of pros and cons. One is not necessarily worse than the other. Ultimately, it’s up to us to decide whether to vilify Amazon or appreciate that such a large business is bound to have quite a few internal issues.

When all is said and done, we still get to determine where we want to shop and eat. Use Amazon for their efficient delivery service. If you see them doing something you disagree with, go to an alternative company. As consumers, we need to decide what we are and aren’t happy with. Let’s use chains, but let’s keep an eye on them. And, if they do behave badly, let’s not hesitate to let them know about it.

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