My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Thoughts on Mobility: Walmart Nation vs. Starbucks Nation

One purported benefit of industrialization is mobility. With the advent of transportation and communication tools, people became more mobile and were able to move further from the city. My grandfather was involved in the airline industry throughout his career and whenever we’re together, he tells me stories about that aspect of mobility; it always makes me smile to think that my mother was born in Gander, Newfoundland because that’s where planes had to refuel before going on to Europe. Today, i’m able to communicate with anyone in the world instantly and complain when my flight is delayed by 30 minutes.

One thing that makes this globalized world operate is the eerie duplication of chain culture resulting in a Walmart nation. If you look at any town in the States, you will find the same selection of brands, offering their wares in the same layout and with the same feel. Small towns collect chains like they’re going out of style. Aside from the wedding venue, i don’t think i entered a single establishment this week that wasn’t a chain, from the Tuxedo Shop to Jillian’s to the CVS to the McDs. I visited multiple malls and they all contained the same establishments and fit into one of a few possible mall layouts. The smaller the town, the more obvious the key retail establishment becomes: Walmart. It is the one place open 24/7 to serve all of your emergency needs (strappy shoes: $4.83).

When you live in small-city or town culture, mobility means being able to go from one town to the next and get the same services. As long as you stick to the same size town and same socio-economic level, you’re bound to have everything that is always available.

Living in a city is not like that. When people land here, they often ask where one gets one’s groceries, one’s hardware, one’s underwear. There aren’t really shopping centers in cities, or at least nothing compared to Retail Row in Walmart Nation. Things are scattered.

Of course, cities come with their own brands, brands that capitalize on the disdain of city residents to Retail Row. These “lifestyle” brands (from No Logo) help us define ourselves not as bargain consumers, but sophisticated, cultured consumers. A fucking Starbucks latte costs almost as much as my Walmart shoes. No wonder it’s easy to jump from San Francisco to New York to London to Chicago: Starbucks Nation.

Mobility is no longer about transportation or about communication: it’s about consumption and values. Starbucks Nation exists in pockets connected by airplanes while Walmart Nation fills in the rest, negotiated by cars and interstates. It’s the blue nation vs. the red, cemented by lifestyle consumption vs. bargain shopping.

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23 comments to Thoughts on Mobility: Walmart Nation vs. Starbucks Nation

  • Like the “red-state-blue-state” dichotomy, the “starbucks-nation-walmart-nation” might make people feel good and secure knowing where they stand in the world, but it just doesn’t hold up to any real scrutiny.

    Surely, “lifestyle consumption” versus “bargain shopping” rarely comes down to one or the other. There’s probably an element of cost-consciousness in every purchase, just as there is an element of social-message-consciousness, both to varying degrees (compare an article of clothing to a screwdriver; if you’re a fashionista, the clothing is an image statement and the hammer utilitarian; if you’re into carpentry, then parhaps vice-versa). The question is, what do your peers and neighbors care about? That’s what you’re going to spend your money on.

    The idea that Starbucks is only for the wealthy urbanites and Walmart for the poor rubes everywhere else, just isn’t true. Of course, I don’t think anyone denies or fails to see that Starbucks’ clientele (and target market) has more money, on average, than Walmart’s. But both of them are everywhere (see data below) and, increasingly, it’s possible for a consumer to shop at both places without much cognitive dissonance (I do).

    So the real problem is that large companies are everywhere. And yes, I agree with you, it’s eerie.

    The data:

    From Walmart.com‘s Store Locator:

    Search Results
    We found 10 stores near san francisco, CA :
    1. San Leandro, CA 94577
    2. Martinez, CA 94553
    3. Union City, CA 94587
    4. Vallejo, CA 94589
    5. Mountain View, CA 94040
    6. Pleasanton, CA 94588
    7. Napa, CA 94558
    8. Fairfield, CA 94534
    9. Milpitas, CA 95035
    10. Pittsburg, CA 94565

    And likewise, from Starbucks.com‘s store locator:

    1. 21st & Amidon
    2166 N. Amidon
    Wichita KS, 67203
    United States

    2. Kellogg & West
    583 S West Street
    Wichita KS, 67213
    United States

    3. Dillon Food Store-Wichita #20
    7707 E Central
    Wichita KS, 67206
    United States

    4. Central & Rock Rd
    8008 East Central
    Wichita KS, 67206
    United States

    5. Harry & Rock
    1600 South Rock Rd
    Wichita KS, 67207
    United States

    6. 29th & Rock
    3000 North Rock Road
    Wichita KS, 67226
    United States

    7. Maize Rd. & 21st
    2241 North Maize Road
    Wichita KS, 67205
    United States

    8. 17th & Lorraine
    1502 E. 17th Ave.
    Hutchinson KS, 67501
    United States

    (Wichita is where Milgram conducted the first Small Worlds study, because it was as far from anything civilized as he could imagine)

  • john

    Great insights, but I feel uneasy about the binary logic you’ve made. Not sure if it’s your implication, but the red-vs-blue would seem to equal republicans=walmart and democrats=starbucks ?

    Being from New England, I’d say that everything there is generally blue, Starbucks or Walmart or not.

    p.s. Actually, in Mass, you might substitue Peet’s for Starbucks, if the allegiances still lie as I remember them. 🙂

  • I think mobility has developed to its’ current state as a direct interest of the Walmart Nation you are talking about. How would you expect businesses to expand their operations without cheap, reliable transportation? One way of doing so is increased efficiency, but that’s much more difficult to achieve I guess.

    VirtualFlavius

  • Scott’s right: economically speaking, Starbucks and Walmart are just two heads of the same hydra. The main difference between them is their marketing and target audience. I would say that it’s not your *actual* level of wealth that determines where you shop, but how you want to perceive yourself. The upwardly mobile are more likely to spring for the latte, even if they can’t really afford it.

    The strange thing is that this would imply the *opposite* mapping to the one danah suggests. Many poor and middle-class folks vote Republican because they feel it associates them with high class people (see Nikki Gunn’s blog).

  • Let me clarify – i completely recognize that the companies are quite similar in their practices and their insidiousness. What i think differs is how people conceptualize their relationship with them and how they identify these brands with their lifestyle. Starbucks and the like are about selling a lifestyle and people flock to that. People don’t flock to Walmart because it sells a lifestyle, but because it sells a bargain.

    And i don’t think that it is a cleanly binary thing at all. Nor do i think that the corporations are Republican/Democrat (although they may be).

  • The analogy plays better for me when contrasting Starbucks Nation vs. Big Mac World. Its also an odd thing when you find yourself longing for comfort in a foreign land and appreciating that the cola wars have been fought everywhere for some time.

  • Irina

    Actually, people flock to Walmart not just because it sells a bargain. Many flock there, because in many small towns, that’s also a social spot, a place to see and be seen, a place to spend time, an afternoon with your kids for example. Granted, both at Starbucks and at Walmart you know what you get regardless of the location (although coffee in Seattle is better than in Nebraska regardless of the Starbucks logo, but that’s details). I suspect that’s where the word mobility came into the argument – the familiar things in new places make it easier to travel – new places just aren’t so “unknown” anymore (you can get the same “latte” in Vienna as you can in Iowa City). In a sense, both companies (and most chain corporations) bargain on that sense of familiarity – you know what you get (they also loose out on it, if you are the adventurous kind).

    However, these chains, insidious as they may be, can bring a touch of difference to the little places they invade. Curious how the coffee culture of quirky coffee house ballooned in this country precisely because Starbucks was an aggressive chain. In some places, both Walmart and Starbucks offer services that are also provided by others, where they are viewed as coroporate vultures come to put the little guy out of business. In other places, however, they may offer services that are new, and capable of both enabling people to redefine a lifestyle and enabling small businesses to capitalize on ideas and offer alternatives (the latter may be side effects neither company actually wants, but they do happen).

    My point is that you seem to lament this “sameness” that has grown up around us, as we (the mobile people) travel around the country. I’m trying to say that this “sameness” may not be all a negative thing. Then again, I’ve been told that the best coffee in Kansas is at Starbucks (Kansas doesn’t have much of a coffee culture apparently). As a tea-drinker, I can’t vouch for that.

  • Sarah

    I have visited your blog at regular intervals for at least four years. I have never dared writing a comment so far because of lacking proficiency in English. But I’m very glad you wrote about Starbucks. So here is my first comment.
    Until 2001 Switzerland had never heard a single word about Starbucks unless they had travelled overseas to North-America. The first Starbucks opened its doors in Zurich in 2001 (Switzerland’s biggest city and my hometown) right in the center of the city. A few months later a second store opened. And up to now there are 17 Starbucks in tiny Switzerland. Nice, little and cozy coffeeshops (that were somehow unique) close down. We have seven Starbucks in the Zurich area (only a million inhabitants) and one is to be opened soon. Starbucks everywhere!
    And I wonder why they always get the best locations in cities. If I go to another city in Switzerland, if I go to another country I’ll be able to drink the same coffee everywhere and pay the same disproportionate price. Wouldn’t it be nice to see new places and new coffeeshops that belong to that place and wouldn’t be just another Starbucks like the one around the corner?
    I often see tourists going to Starbucks in Zurich. There is so many coffeeshops here that are different from the ones a tourist could possibly go to in his or her hometown or in other countries. Why discover something new when travelling? At Starbucks you know what you get!

    There is going to be more Starbucks in Switzerland. Probably just like in Vancouver where I had seen two Starbucks just opposite to each other. But what to do? Starbucks seems to be able to pay for the rent at very expensive locations while small Swiss businesses don’t.

  • Btw: in this post, i fail to clarify a lot since it’s a musing instead of an essay. A lot of what is unsaid comes from the book No Logo and the arguments within it. That might be a great place to start for anyone interested in this topic.

  • In contrast to Sarah’s comment about tourists, when I was in Berlin, I wanted to go anywhere but Starbucks; the locals who kindly offered to let me choose were quite upset, preferring Starbucks. (The coffee I got was very good.)

    Starbucks hasn’t made huge inroads in Quebec, possibly because we already had the coffee culture (I can’t think of any places that have shut down, offhand). There are only 14 in the province, including the airport, hospital, big chain bookstores and those little stands in the mall.

  • For me, a great part of traveling is food. Whether this is in relation to inter-state or international. When I go somewhere, I want to try the restaurants there.

    So when I’m at a W hotel in Menlo Park and asking the purportedly hip receptionist where I can get a bite to eat, I really had hoped for something better than “Red Lobster” (a gaudy chain for the international readers) but since it was the first thing to come from her mouth, I quickly disregarded any other suggestions she might have had.

    The sameness is nice when you simply want something known. I think danah’s point is that there’s almost a culture in being deliberately anti-chain and pro-independence. That, to me, is the lifestyle culture. Starbucks as an example takes away from that point though so maybe I’m twisting her words to my own thoughts. I’d say most independent coffee shops could easily be used to express wht $4.00 mocha.

  • There’s another angle to the Starbucks vs. Walmart dichotomy: corporate responsibility.

    For all its onus as the face of multinational capitalism, Starbuck’s has a remarkably progressive labor policy and a reasonably good sourcing one. Starbucks employees enjoy health benefits, good wages, advancement opportunities, and the like. It is regularly rated one of the best 100 companies to work for in the US.

    Walmarts is a labor rights nightmare, aggressively rooting out any attempts to organize its workers, depressing wages in the communities into which it moves. Its sourcing practices are unrepentantly amoral, even as it is censorious within its walls – you can’t buy CDs with naughty lyrics or a copy of Grand Theft Auto, but shoes made by schoolchildren in Indonesia are not a moral problem for these people.

    The anti-chain attitude among Starbuck’s critics is a selective one. It’s boutique anti-corporatism, because it only cares about Main Street, not about the infrastructure of production and distribution behind it. Your little indie cafe still buys its equipment from manufacturing conglomerates, still buys foodstuffs from massive agri-businesses. Having an independently branded cute litte coffeehouse serviced by benefit-lacking uninsured youth, may feel progressive, but it’s just a Potemkin Village.

  • i just spent two weeks travelling throughout Morocco, thru small villages and thru sprawling cities. there were no notable chains (beyond petrol), but every place had the same types of stores (cafes, butchers, produce stands, moroccan equivalents of bodegas, more cafes, and more bodegas), and, within each type, the stores were identical in each place. the consumer experience is identical in any town or city in Morocco (based on my sampling), even more identical than in America, where countless (tho dwindling) unique and regionally-oriented shops continue to survive amidst the starbucks and walmarts. Morocco’s homogenous consumer architecture is, as best i can tell, purely culturally reified, devoid of corporate infrastructure beyond the coca-colas and dannons ramifying their product out to the farthest capillary with honed precision. going there, i was expecting a singular experience, but i certainly wasn’t expecting a consumer experience comparably monotonous to the american chain and franchise.

  • stef

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/3601134.stm

    my wife has a rant about walmarts…everyone is just mad at me these days…i can’t figure this out…

  • Jeph

    Jeepers, you really struck a chord with this entry 🙂
    Anyway, it also turned some wheels in my noggin. When thinking about the difference between the standardization of product in non-urban box stores and the more dispersed and specialized stores of urban centers, I want to argue that people in the former tend to live more habitual and routinized lives because of their job type, while people in the later tend to be from Richard Florida’s “creative class” – people constantly seeking new sources of stimulation. But I guess Starbucks is the perfect counter example to this explanation, as it is supported by them creative types, yet it sells them nothing but the expected (i.e. one grande caffeine fix). Sooo, I dunno. Maybe the only thing they/we no collar workers want constant is our daily drug fix?

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  • Nancy

    Just got back from 10 days travelling around Alaska where I found virtually NO national chains outside of Anchorage — generally even the gas stations were an Alaskan brand not seen elsewhere. No Starbucks, no MacDonalds, no Comfort Inn or Motel 6 — well, there was a Subway just outside Denali National Park.

    I also noticed a lack of class distinction between servers/clerks/etc. in stores and their customers — which made the usual class distinctions in ‘the 48’ more apparent. People seemed to know one another and, even when they didn’t, treated one another as neighbors, not clerks and customers. I think there’s some relationship here: the store employees are not interchangeable/faceless units in homogenized stores. Some of my most interesting conversations were with women working in restaurants, with whom I talked about why they moved to Alaska and what life is like for Alaska residents.

    BTW, WalMart and Fred Meyers (a Northwest chain like WalMart) in Anchorage have BIG sections selling guns, not just hunting rifles but handguns. I think I remember hearing that Alaska is the only place where WalMart does so.

  • An interesting note about the details of Starbucks in Wichita – the region didn’t have any until about a year and a half ago.

    Starbucks has done a fantastic job of marketing a lifestyle, and the residents of Wichita have bought into it fully – Along with the much anticipated arrival of other chains ranging from Krispy Kreme to Abercrombie & Fitch, the presence of Starbucks allows residents to feel as if they do exist as part of civilization. It’s certainly not the coffee itself – prior to the arrival of Starbucks i think most people made coffee at home (or didn’t drink it at all), because we’ve never had any abundance of independent coffee shops.

    (And, to add a bit of credibility to my statements, i’ve lived in Wichita for the past eleven years, escaping in four month intervals to attend school in the northeast. It’s not actually the worst place in the world…though i’m not in any rush to return on a permanent basis.)

  • Liz

    Part of what you describe, danah, comes from being an outsider in a place rather than an insider. When you’re not familiar with the nooks and crannies of a location, you tend to focus on the familiar landmarks–malls, fast food, etc.

    But as someone who lives in the “Walmart Nation” (the specific part of it you just visited, in fact), I know for a fact that there are plenty of independent coffee shops and quirky no-logo stores, if you’re willing to take the time to look for them. And having spent the last two weeks traveling on interstates between campgrounds and rural towns, I can assure you that there’s plenty of variety there as well. Yes, there’s a Wal-Mart in Centreville, AL. But there’s also the Twix-N-Tween, which has some of the best barbecue in the southeast.

    (This post left me feeling a bit defensive…it’s got a tone of elitism that I found surprising, considering its author. 🙂

  • Liz

    Part of what you describe, danah, comes from being an outsider in a place rather than an insider. When you’re not familiar with the nooks and crannies of a location, you tend to focus on the familiar landmarks–malls, fast food, etc.

    But as someone who lives in the “Walmart Nation” (the specific part of it you just visited, in fact), I know for a fact that there are plenty of independent coffee shops and quirky no-logo stores, if you’re willing to take the time to look for them. And having spent the last two weeks traveling on interstates between campgrounds and rural towns, I can assure you that there’s plenty of variety there as well. Yes, there’s a Wal-Mart in Centreville, AL. But there’s also the Twix-N-Tween, which has some of the best barbecue in the southeast.

    (This post left me feeling a bit defensive…it’s got a tone of elitism that I found surprising, considering its author. 🙂

  • Liz

    Part of what you describe, danah, comes from being an outsider in a place rather than an insider. When you’re not familiar with the nooks and crannies of a location, you tend to focus on the familiar landmarks–malls, fast food, etc.

    But as someone who lives in the “Walmart Nation” (the specific part of it you just visited, in fact), I know for a fact that there are plenty of independent coffee shops and quirky no-logo stores, if you’re willing to take the time to look for them. And having spent the last two weeks traveling on interstates between campgrounds and rural towns, I can assure you that there’s plenty of variety there as well. Yes, there’s a Wal-Mart in Centreville, AL. But there’s also the Twix-N-Tween, which has some of the best barbecue in the southeast.

    (This post left me feeling a bit defensive…it’s got a tone of elitism that I found surprising, considering its author. 🙂

  • Liz

    eek! i don’t know why it triple posted. please delete two of those. 🙁

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