Why is America so homogenized? We like it that way

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like a familiar shopping center

Every now and again, I have a conversation with a friend bemoaning the standardization of America. Wherever you go, it seems you’ve been there before. Each town has its Home Depots, its Best Buys, its Walmarts, its Targets, and on and on and on.

As urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson declared in 1996: “The Egyptians have pyramids, the Chinese have a Great Wall, the British have immaculate lawns, the Germans have castles, the Dutch have canals, the Italians have grand churches. And Americans have shopping centers.”

So, even though we say we love variety and individualism, when you look at the urban landscape, it would be hard to prove. Why?

A group of researchers led by Shigehiro Oishi at the University of Virginia has come up with an answer. These researchers believe the standardization of America has to do with our highly mobile society. In 2006, about 16 percent of Americans – almost 50 million people  – changed residences. In 2010, that figure had fallen to 37.5 million people or about 12.5 percent, which is still substantial; of those who moved that year, 69.3 percent stayed within the same county, 16.7 percent moved to a different county in the same state, 11.5 percent moved to a different state, and 2.5 percent moved from abroad to the U.S.

Oishi and his team are exploring the idea that, as we move around, we find stability and even some comfort in the familiarity of stores and shopping experiences we know. When we’re dealing with the stress of moving, it’s helpful to be able to walk into a Target or a Best Buy and know what it looks like and how it’s organized.

The need for familiarity and comfort isn’t the only reason the big chains develop, of course. They also enjoy economic advantages from economies of scale and the ability to control logistics. But the reason there’s such a large market for them could come down to our need for a little certainty when we move to a new neighborhood or town.

Are you a frequenter of national chains? If so, why?

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