January 14th 2009 The Beginning of the Future of Capitalism

I’ve been (slowly) reading Naomi Klein’s No Logo (mostly on the bus to and from work and school). This morning, I read the section about the rise of mega-chains like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, The Gap, et al. I was struck by Klein’s comparison of these chains with A&P back in 1913. Around 1913, A&P began opening up “economy stores”—the forerunner of the modern supermarket. It ended up opening 7500 stores—which I consider to be a phenomenal feat in the early 1900s. It basically used today’s “Wal-Mart” model: A&P opened up a plethora of stores, undercut competitors’ prices, and then closed stores which they no longer needed.

It occurred to me that, while some people were just as dismayed by A&P’s practices back in 1913 as they are with Wal-Mart’s and Starbucks’ today, we’ve come to accept that concept of the modern grocery store and think little of it. What was shocking less than a hundred years ago has just become a way of life today. Does this mean that the concept of the mega-chain won’t even be questioned a century from now?

Of course, the “chain supermarket philosophy” isn’t as acceptable in other parts of the world. I recall my high school German teacher mentioning that the typical German goes to the market every few days and buys fresh foods. Maybe this is just a romantic vision of a foreign culture, but it does seem that most cultures eat healthier, fresher food than Americans—and don’t really buy into the idea of a supermarket.

Maybe this rampant capitalism is a purely American trend that can be reversed. But with the way American imposes its culture on others, I’m doubtful. Even if you feel strongly about the importance of local businesses and maintaining a healthy town center and public meeting places, it’s hard to ignore, let alone resist, the juggernaut that are mega-chains like Wal-Mart.