12 November 2006

Sometimes the little guys win

Some people have a lot of power. Sometimes they think the rest of us have no power at all. Sometimes they're wrong.

I recall a couple of incidents that happened here in the Portland area in the last few years.

Case #1 was in the city of Gresham just east of Portland itself. QFC, a supermarket chain (similar to Safeway but a bit more "upscale") wanted to build a store near the intersection of 182nd and Powell. To clear land for the store, a large stand of old-growth cedar trees would need to be cut down. This led to intense opposition from the neighborhood, which did not want to lose the trees (the old-growth trees in the Portland area, patches of which survive here and there among the buildings, are huge and magnificent). QFC brushed aside the locals' objections and pushed the project through. The irreplaceable trees were cut and the store was built.

But people didn't forget. Many locals refused to shop there. The store never made as much money as anticipated. Eventually it closed. The building is still empty.

Today, Wal-Mart has plans for a store on the site. Neighborhood grassroots organizations are uneasy about this, largely due to concerns about traffic congestion. And because the planned store will be much larger than the old QFC, the few remaining old trees on the site would have to be cut down.

Mall-Wart is powerful and may well succeed in overriding all opposition and getting its project built. I wouldn't bet too much on the long-term viability of the store, though.

Case #2 happened in the Sellwood neighborhood, a quiet area in southern Portland which is mostly residential with a few small antique shops and restaurants. A few years ago some advertising company set up one of those electronic billboards, the kind that show continuous moving pictures like a giant TV screen, at the intersection of 13th and Tacoma, the two main streets in Sellwood. This garish, flickering imposition would have been well suited to an urban core setting or a major shopping area (the kinds of sites where they are more commonly located); in the middle of Sellwood, it looked as out-of-place as a bowling ball on a chessboard. Aside from its ugliness, there was a fear that it would distract drivers and cause accidents.

Neighbors complained; the advertising company shrugged off their concerns. Noticing that many of the businesses which advertised on the billboard were local, some people contacted those businesses and promised never to patronize them as long as they continued to advertise there. Word got around. After a while, it was noticed that the billboard was displaying mostly public-service messages, with few revenue-producing advertisements appearing any more. Eventually the billboard was removed "for maintenance". That was several years ago now. It's still gone.

To the best of my knowledge, there was never any vandalism of the billboard, even though it was situated in a way that would have made this quite easy. It was purely the power of the market at work.

It may sometimes seem as though the big guys hold all the cards, but as long as they need something from you -- your shopping dollars, your vote, or whatever -- you do have some power. Try using it. You might surprise yourself.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those are great stories! Thanks for sharing them. They really underscore the power of the marketplace. I'm always amazed when companies, as well as individuals, forget this basic fact.

12 November, 2006 14:01  

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