Over the last several decades, global capitalism transformed the distribution of goods, knocking down the last brick in the cultural and economic edifice of Main Street USA. Along with the virtual marketplace created by the internet, Wal-Mart supercenters and the big-box stores located in “power centers” created new challenges for the traditional independent “brick and mortar” retailer. As the papers in this panel suggest, however, the “retailing revolution” that brought about the demise of the independent has a long and complicated history, something that has begun to be documented by scholars of business, labor, consumer culture, and urban history. Connecting with an emerging debate on the politics of consumption led by Lizabeth Cohen, Meg Jacobs, and more recently, Daniel Scroop, this panel focuses on the different ways that independent producers, distributors, and consumers deployed “the local” as a tool of both resistance and accommodation to this retailing revolution.
The late nineteenth-century retailing revolution, characterized by the emergence of large-scale production, mass merchandising, and a national market, transformed rural markets and small-town life. Modernization, however, did not happen overnight, nor was it uncontested or adopted wholesale in the same way in all regions. By the end of the 1920s, even though more than seven thousand national, regional, and local chain stores pulled in around one-fifth of the nation’s total retail business, independents still had considerable economic and ideological clout. Independent grocers and department stores, among others, organized to fight the “chain store menace” with punitive taxes and legislation intended to prevent them from using their size to extract unfair price concessions from manufacturers. All three papers reveal small-scale producers and distributors challenging bigness, using lessons learned from big business to preserve their local markets. Government regulations, as Spellman argues in her study of grocers, endorsed chains’ business methods and indirectly helped national chain stores supplant local firms. Howard shows family-run, single-unit department stores forming centralized figure exchange groups with other independents or joining buying organizations that mimicked chains, even as they deployed nostalgic advertising and merchandising campaigns that promoted “the old-timey” origin of their stores and the pioneer status of their founding families. And Hamilton and Kurtz reveal small- scale farmers fighting agribusiness, using the tools of mass-distribution that had worked against them in the past. Although chains and agribusiness have seemingly won out, their success was in no way predetermined, something this panel underscores with its attention to resistance at the level of production, distribution, and consumption. While web-based retailing provides new challenges for Main Street—internet shoppers spent $27 billion in the 2009 holiday season, an increase of 5 percent over 2008--it has created successful new niche markets. As the existence of alternate producer/distributor/consumer networks like the Virtual Farmers’ Markets analyzed by Hamilton and Kurtz suggests, the story of the local market place is not yet over, even though, as Howard demonstrates in her paper, consumers now widely lament the loss of independent retailers and the local or regional identities they once embodied.