Why do we like chains so much?

· by Steve · Read in about 5 min · (880 Words)

america_unchainedI’ve been neglecting my blogging duties of late, not because I don’t have anything to say (it takes strong gaffer tape to achieve that particular result), but I just seem to be juggling a lot of stuff at once right now and there’s always something else to be doing. This post is therefore for those who have been missing my particular brand of opinionated rambling. 😉

I recently watched Dave Gorman’s America Unchained. For those who aren’t familiar with the man, he’s a British alternative comedian / stand-up whose work includes such classics as Are  You Dave Gorman? and Googlewhack Adventure, both of which I highly recommend. In this instance, Dave decided to try to cross North America without paying any money to any ‘chain’ - every business he patronised had to be an independent, ‘Mom and Pop’ set-up.  That meant no staying in Holiday Inns, no buying petrol (gas) from chain-owned gas stations, no Starbucks or McDonalds. Having an affinity to independent business myself it sounded like a pretty interesting premise.

As it turned out, the film wasn’t as entertaining as his previous work, but it raised some fascinating issues about society and modern culture. He originally decided to embark on the journey because on a previous whistlestop tour through America, he’d lamented that by staying in chain hotels and often eating at chain restaurants, he got absolutely no feel for the individual character of a particular region - everything was homogenised, standard. This is increasingly the case wherever you go - high streets that have all the usual suspects lined up along them, all containing all the same products that you’ll find anywhere else. Why is it that, as a culture, we seem to approve of this removal of individuality, and excessive standardisation of our consumptive environment?

Ok, cost is one issue. Big chains can buy in bulk and sell cheaper (although not all operate like this of course - some sell at quite ridiculous prices). But I think it’s about far more than that.

I’ve said I’m something of a fan of independent business. I hate just about every major fast-food chain and have experienced first-hand the soul-sapping experience of staying in a chain hotel in a foreign country. However, if there was one chink in this armour (ignoring Amazon for a minute), then that was Starbucks. Earlier in the life of my coffee appreciation arc, I was a big fan of Starbucks, and would seek it out wherever I saw it, wherever I was in the world. Why? It wasn’t because it was cheap - their prices are ridiculous. I was because I knew I liked it. It was a safe, easy option, guaranteed - and I’m convinced that deep down, this is the primary factor for most people who unfailingly patronise chains. As time has gone on, however, I’ve discovered that by seeking out Starbucks rather than something else, I’ve risked missing out on broadening my experience. Going elsewhere sometimes means a dud, but that’s the risk you take. These days, I’ll drink Starbucks (although it never seems to taste as good as it used to, probably because I’ve broadened my palate), but the fact that I know precisely what it’s like actually means I’m less likely to buy it if there are other options now. Been there, done that - let’s try something else. Happily, the best take-out coffee in my local town is an independent (‘Woodies’, who also source their blends locally), but actually my favourite coffee is now my own; because I have the equipment to make good espresso and I regularly experiment with different beans.

Ok, amateur psychology time. 😀So one of the factors I think is in play here is that our modern lives are so fast, so competitive, so turbulent, so mobile, so devoid of the predictability that previous generations encountered (discounting war and famine of course), that we cling more to any kind of perceived rock of stability and certainty that we can find. In an age where consumerism so dominates our existence, surely it’s very natural that some of the things we cling desperately to in the storm are brands. If your life is fast, tough and regularly complex and challenging, maybe it’s nice not to have to think quite so hard about where you get your coffee, where you got to eat, where you buy  your clothes. Maybe in the past, with a slower pace of life, people had the time to build one-to-one relationships with local, independent traders and evaluate things individually - but when you’re moving around and have so much else to think about, fast, easy decisions with a predictable outcome are no doubt attractive. It sort of reminds me of speed dating - no time to consider the subtleties, just get the process done fast.

Personally, I think looking down a high street in any place in the world and seeing 90% country-wide or worldwide chains is pretty depressing. It represents a homogenisation of the world, a removal of individuality, and a ceding of personal, local character to faceless, amorphous giants. I agree with Dave Gorman that we should lament the steady decline of ‘Mom and Pop’ businesses, which may be less predictable, non-standard and quirky, but that’s part of the charm.