This summer I was lucky enough to live in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One thing I noticed about their downtown, which set it apart from my hometown of Toronto, was the stores. In Toronto you see American Eagle, Urban Behaviour, Starbucks, you know- the chain stores. In Halifax it was different. There was Envy, Biscuit, and Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia. Halifax has unique stores, stores you won’t find anywhere else. When I arrived in Banff at the end of this summer, save for the mountains, their downtown was more akin to Toronto than it was Halifax.
At first I was rather surprised. But when you think about it for a minute, it makes sense. Banff isn’t like other small towns. Banff may be a small town, but it is an international tourist attraction. It attracts people from all over the world, so it really shouldn’t be a surprise that these people come to spend, and want to spend in the big name stores. However, not every resident of Banff is thrilled about the chain stores.
Recently this tourist town has decided to seek public debate on whether to limit the number of chain stores. In turn, this could create a utopian village where businesses are punished for doing what they naturally want to do- growing. Although independent businesses bring an authentic feel to any town, they are often dominated by bad business models. After all, what business is small because it chooses to be so?
Some small businesses complain that the commercial real estate rents are through the roof, in part due to the increasing amount of chain stores in the area. Some go so far to claim that it is impossible to compete. In a free market, competition isn’t impossible. It just means that one business happens to be winning a greater share of the market. In other words, that one business is achieving success. Susanne Gillies-Smith is the owner of the Banff Tea Co, and is leading a campaign for the Town of Banff to adopt quotas against chain stores.
However, a quota solves nothing in the long run. Yes, in the short run it may improve business for some independent businesses. However, in the long run, if a product cannot compete in the open market it should be re-evaluated, and improved until the independent business can achieve a greater share of the market than the chain store can. For example the Rocky Mountain Soap Company creates incredible products. Their chain store competition would be similar to Lush. But where Lush can be purchased anywhere, there is something about a product only available in Alberta that makes it more desirable for a tourist.
One town councillor, Stavors Karlos, has the right frame of mind. “I welcome all businesses that appreciate our unique mountain community.” He has travelled to California, and witnessed the impacts of other towns that have banned chain stores for “reasons other than the economic success of vitality of their destination.” He acknowledges that the quotas could result in driving down rents, and protecting chain stores already established in Banff from fair competition.
There is perhaps, some irony in the fact that Susanne Gillies-Smith only became involved in the ongoing chain store debate when a rival tea shop, David’s Tea moved in around the corner. Although she claims that there is more to this than the revenue of her store, she also says that “the town itself is going to be so tacky”.
David Stratton runs an independent jewellery shop in Banff. He has a different perspective. Smaller businesses can be more nimble than big ones. “I would almost rather compete against national chins than independents” He says that “It’s a huge advantage. You just have to know your market.”
In this case, “knowing your market” means knowing that tourists are looking for something authentically from Banff. When I was looking for gifts to bring home to my family as souvenirs, I did not want to get them a gift from Lush, Roots, or Lululemon I could just as well get them at the Eaton’s Centre and save room in my luggage. Instead, I purchased gifts from independent, local shops to bring my family a true taste of Banff. At the same time, I also purchased a sweater at Roots because, well, I liked it. Shopping in Banff is not a battle of chain vs independent stores, but a question of the purpose of the purchase.
I advocate for an open market in Banff. Let successful business with strong business models thrive, and employ locals. Let unsuccessful businesses close up shop. After all, at the end of the day the store with the best product will prevail. Chain, or independent aside, I hope that the town council will examine the economic impact that a mixed market brings, and understand that policies aimed at controlling the market often come with some heavy unintended consequences.