From our old spot at Cooper Square, we could see it, looming green and white and weirdly shiny, like an enormous toilet with corndogs swirling inside it: the 7-Eleven, which touched down on St. Marks Place in April 2012 to general dismay and a little window-smashin’. Now that 7-Eleven has disappeared, as East Village blog EV Grieve was first to report.
It’s not much, the disappearance of one 7-Eleven. But it’s a symbol of something larger, according to the newest “State of the Chains” report from the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank that studies economic issues. This is their sixth year surveying the number of chain stores across the five boroughs, and report author Christian Gonzalez-Rivera found something surprising. Although the overall number of chain stores grew this year, as it has for the previous five, “the expansion of chain stores across the city slowed considerably,” Gonzalez-Rivera writes. There was only a 0.5 percent increase in the number of chain stores that opened locations in New York in 2013, the smallest increase the center has seen since they began the study. So, progress?
Well, kind of. The number of chain stores declined slightly in both Manhattan and Queens, but grew in the other boroughs, especially Brooklyn, which saw a 2.8 percent increase over last year (1,470 stores in 2012 to 1,511 this year). Most of the decline in Manhattan came from one place: the South Street Seaport, which was hard-hit by Sandy, and specifically Pier 17, which has been partially demolished and will soon become the site of a towering 50-story something or other.
But although 7-Eleven closed one store, they opened 27 more. So did the city’s largest chain retailer, Dunkin Donuts, which has 515 locations in the city, opening 39 more this year alone. And even a few “smaller” chains that didn’t have much of a presence in New York opened between 7 and 15 locations this year: Just Salad, L’Occitane, Trader Joes, Chop’t and Claire’s Accessories. (From our new perch on Maiden Lane, we watch as a never-ceasing tide of glum people in suits stand in line at Just Salad, a line that predictably always goes out the door and partway down the block. People. It’s. Just. Salad. They put it right there in the name.)
As for the chain stores who closed the largest numbers of locations, one of them is not, as you might have guessed, Starbucks (which still has 283 stores in New York, 212 of them in Manhattan). T-Mobile closed the most New York stores this year, shutting down 12, leaving 161 total. Cut-rate clothing store Daffy’s closed all eleven of its locations, probably because it went out of business. Staples, Tasti D-Lite and Sunglass Hut are also slowly ebbing away. But alert to hipsters: a few new chain stores made the list, including Buffalo Exchange, which is a chain as much as you want it not to be (although they still have only five stores citywide).
In total, Gonzalez-Rivera found, there’s a whopping 24 chain stores per square mile in New York; in Manhattan, it’s 117 per square mile.
But how should we interpret this data? Center for an Urban Future’s executive director Jonathan Bowles says they started studying the issue six years ago “because there was so much discussion around the explosion of chains and the plight of mom and pop businesses. It occurred to us there was no particular data backdrop to the situation. it was an emotional argument and we decided we wanted to provide real data behind what’s happening.”
But Bowles also points out, the rise of chain stores in the city is a story that’s “more gray than black and white.”
“It depends on where you are in the city,” he adds. “There’s a lot of very low-income residents in the Bronx that love that Target is there now.” (The Bronx saw a 1.6 percent increase in chains, from 849 stores in 2012 to 863 this year.) “There are obviously downsides to some of these retailers, but people love the options they have, that they don’t have to travel into Manhattan or out into the suburbs to get some of the items they want. They’re not stuck going to only 99 cent stores or bodegas.”
That said, he adds, chains aren’t always “a thrilling thing for New York… There’s a lot of New York City neighborhoods, particularly in Manhattan and to a lesser extent in the other boroughs where neighborhoods have really reached a tipping point, where it’s a dangerous situation that so many independent stores are squeezed out. But I don’t think it’s the same story in every neighborhood.”
The full “State of the Chains” report is on the following page.
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.