Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Big Box Comes to Provincial France

I want to share with you a link to a New York Times article about the "devitalization" of towns and small cities in France. They are, it is said, losing their "Frenchness."

It seems the French are whining about the transplantation to France of a phenomenon long felt in the U.S. - the hollowing-out of downtowns. Vacancy rates in many such provincial centers run 10% or more.

At the same time, big box stores like our super Walmarts and Costcos, places the French call "hypermarkets," are springing up on the edge of towns offering free parking for cars. It is a phenomenon with which we are all too aware, the destruction of city centers, the loss of the intime neighborhood life of little shops and cafes, accessed on foot or by bicycle.

I can't speak for France, obviously. Here in the U.S. the only people unhappy about the process described above are urban planners, downtown merchants and owners of urban real estate. Everybody else appreciates the one-stop nature of shopping at big-box stores, the ability to drive there and park, and the lower prices their economies of scale provide. Townspeople demonstrate that preference by voting with their feet (and dollars or euros).

A lot of this is driven by the increase in two-career couples who have to fit shopping and recreation into busy work lives. Chatting up merchants isn't on their agenda. Hanging out at sidewalk cafes doesn't fit their rapid-paced lifestyle. Neither do leisurely restaurant meals requiring a multi-hour time commitment.

Like it or not, the languid boulevardier is obsolete. Would-be Maurice Chevaliers take note.