Sunday, November 13, 2011

The New Order: 7-11 Opens on Madison

Happened the other day, in New York City, near the day job’s office, on Madison Avenue, a grand opening of a 7-11.  During my youth in Bergen County then Atlantic County then Bergen County again I worked plenty of night shifts, filing stories by Midnight and before then, crappy jobs in warehouses and other alienating shit-holes, even once was a cashier at a Parkway rest stop, graveyard shift. The only place still open after 2:00 AM were a handful of diners and 7-11s or their equivalent, Wa-Wa and Cumberland Farm. 

In the suburbs and the ex-burbs, here and across the land that I love best, 7-11s were often trading posts at the edges of the frontier, barely embryonic civilization formed by highways and strip malls and jobs that used to be there in factories and mills, later office parks and technical support call centers.

Individuals were unable to invest or unwilling to dream that the service road to the Interstate could someday a well travelled path to employment where workers would stop for a coffee, bear claw and pack of Luckies. Many places a convenient store might be an unfeasible enterprise – an individual store owner would not be able to garner sufficient revenue to make it work, but a chain intent on building a national brand could run a few stores at less than desirable profitability because more locations not just build a brand, but makes it easier to absorb losses due to under-performing stores. Of course as soon as the inability of the independent store to compete on price, selection or hours drives that retailer out of business, that 7-11 location will improve its profitability.

We consumers soon ask ourselves, why not go to the certainity of a 7-11 instead of risking your time at a local general store because you remembered how great the energy drink selection was at that 7-11 on that highway that one time where nothing was opened and you were driving all night and the future was only tomorrow and apprehension filled the horizon. Things turned out all right then, it could today.

I have nothing against 7-11s stores or national chains. Like McDonalds and Star Bucks, 7-11s provide security – no matter where you are in our hyper mobile country, you can be in a place that you know. But New York City (and the NYC area which also means J.C.) is not in the middle of nowhere with nothing else; the city that never sleeps has a plethora of 24 bodegas with beverages and cigarettes and lottery machines. I remember thinking how cool it was that I could get Jolt Cola or a Red Stripe Beer and a pack of Goullaise at 3:00 AM; And they had weird things you never saw anywhere, like this vanilla coconut soda I drank before I had to restrict my sugar intake. An awesome beverage, whose name I can’t remember, that I haven’t seen in 20 years.

I didn’t miss the 7-11s when I went urban, and even though my night owl ways gradually waned I took comfort in knowing that if I ever need weird sodas and french cigarettes during the desperate netherworld twixt midnight and dawn they were there for me.  It wasn’t just the convenience of the national branded convenience store that I discovered in the 24-hour bodega and deli republic; it was the individuality of the stores, the personable clerks, often the owners or the family members of the owner.

The 7-11 has a personality too, but it is a corporate personality; the comfort it provides intentionally lacks a knowable individual stamp; in an unfamiliar time or place they are the bastion of familiarity. When it’s the only place opened after all the bars are closed and you are the only one you know awake, you’re thankful for that bland familiarity. But why would anyone need or want that when you have the sea or diversity that is Manhattan’s Bodega and Deli republic?

I recently blogged about a local J.C. store, 24-7, that received a cease and desist order from 7-11 because their awning blatantly mimicked the more famous brand.  I realize now why they went for that recognition. Our society no longer values the individual shop owner and his or her personal retail vision. We want stores to be like Subway or McDonalds and a convenient store is no different than a Target or Wal-Mart. Except for the 99 cents, many of which are now chains, how many other independent department stores do you know of, or stores of any real size, except for a few shops specializing in over-priced designer wares. C.H. Martin?

I now realize why 7-11 made such an effort to attack this local business owner; they’re invading inner-cities, that’s the new growth opportunity for national chains. There’s a 7-11 in Journal Square. Bodegas and Delis have proven that there is a huge market here and in other cities for convenient stores; opportunities that no longer exist in our nation’s ex-urbs, where the farms are all shut down and the industrial and tech jobs that replaced them during the last century are now performed in other nations.

New York City used to be a place filled with stores that could only be found there. Exceptions remain but for the most part, Manhattan is now the STRIP MALL ON THE HUDSON.

Another more nefarious cause resulted in this 7-11 on Madison Avenue. It’s the chains that have the investment power. An entrepreneur getting a loan to start a store versus a known brand opening up an outlet, which is the better risk, Mr. Banker? Which loan do Government policies or New York zoning and business licensing regulations encourage?

Regional distinctiveness is an endangered species. The New Order arrives one 7-11 at a time and a city becomes a consolidated Ex-urb.

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