Lessons from Black Friday

It's all about rewarding the wrong things, and aspiring to the wrong kind of metropolitan life.

Crosscut archive image.

Caffe Umbria in Pioneer Square

It's all about rewarding the wrong things, and aspiring to the wrong kind of metropolitan life.

On Friday, Black Friday as it's called for retailers, I chose to take a trip to Pioneer Square with my daughter and new grand-daughter. The first thing I noticed, about midday, was that our fears about finding a parking place were mistaken. Lots of easy parking on the streets. The next concern, could we find a place for lunch, also evaporated. Caffe Umbria, my favorite coffee shop in the Square, had only a handful of customers, and we were treated with all kinds of attention. Magic Mouse Toys, on the other hand, was bustling, with what I took to be lots of visiting relatives and browsers.

Then it dawned on me. Black Friday, with the huge hoopla about big box discount stores and iPod-driven manic customers sleuthing out deals, is in fact a black day for small retailers. A Wall Street Journal story recounts how many of these high-character stores actually close on Black Friday. They can't match the ad blitz, they can't afford to give away merchandise, and they don't want to make their employees show up at 3 am to brace for the riots. One small corrective step is the debut of Small Business Saturday, a promotion encouraging shoppers to remember home-grown, small businesses on at least one day between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

You'd think the media, with its interest in lower carbon footprints and preserving walkable streets with small shops, would be a little less triumphalist about Black Friday. It's the conquest of generica over characterful stores. It's the triumph of offshore, cheap manufacturers. It's the victory parade of Malls over Main Streets. It's the obliteration of the locavore mentality. (It's also a whole lot of advertising revenue.)

The pattern was another reminder of how Seattle has a hard time thinking small. We hanker to global-city status. Yet the truly huge cities are losing out to what Joel Kotkin calls smaller, nimbler cities. These "efficient cities," in Kotkin's term, are livable little dynamos that  "provide the amenities of megacities—airports, mass communication, reservoirs of talent—without their grinding congestion, severe social conflicts and other diseconomies of scale."

Kotkin notes research on which American cities are growing fastest and retaining jobs: "The big gainers were generally cities with 100,000 to 2.5 million residents. The winners included business-friendly Texas cities and other Southern locales like Raleigh-Durham, now the nation's fastest-growing metro area with over 1 million people. You can add rising heartland cities like Columbus, Indianapolis, Des Moines, Omaha, Sioux Falls, Oklahoma City, and Fargo."

I liked that bit of "black" humor about Oklahoma City.


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