Creeping Uniformity

The mass appearance of AM:PM chain stores on every corner is doing more than just making business difficult for the smaller stores; it is harming the unique and diverse cultures of Tel Aviv.

They are difficult to ignore. The first branch opened in October 2001, and last week in Jaffa, the fifteenth opened. The rapid spread of the AM:PM City Market convenience store chain throughout Tel Aviv is an interesting test case for the urban consumer culture. The stores stick out, with their bright lighting and colorful signs. They operate 24 hours a day, including Sabbath and holidays. The branches feature a selection of products not offered by kosher supermarkets and neighborhood groceries (such as seafood and pork products). The owners of the chain intend to open at least three more branches in greater Tel Aviv by the end of the year. The newest addition will open next week in Ramat Gan.

It took a little time before it dawned, and then in a flash it was clear that something in the city had changed: in the look of its streets and their commercial composition, in people's buying habits, in operating hours, even in the language. The moment that the brand name became a generic term - in other words, when residents began saying, "I need to go to AM:PM (or even 'am-pam') on the way home" instead of saying, "I need to stop at the grocery store" - was certainly a significant moment. That is the moment when a brand name becomes the first possibility, almost the only possibility, that arises when considering a category. It is not to be taken lightly: The chain's owners have accumulated significant power.

And so, as with other big chains, including the Super-Pharm drugstores, Aroma coffee houses, Steimatzky bookstores, and McDonald's fast food, it is a good idea to stop and examine the footprint left on the city by AM:PM's entry into Tel Aviv.

In south Tel Aviv's Florentine neighborhood, for example, two branches of the convenience store opened recently, within a few hundred meters of each other. This has an immediate effect on the existing small grocery stores. If residents change their habits and choose to stop by AM:PM after work, or in the middle of the night on their way home from a club, in order to buy grapefruit juice, eggs, bread and vegetables for breakfast, the veteran grocery stores, which are legally prohibited from staying open at night, will lose sales.

Also lost are the benefits of the neighborhood groceries, such as intimacy, the personal touch, a feeling of community and the possibility of buying on credit. Gone is the loyalty to the family operating the grocery. Customers are quick to abandon them for the anonymous convenience of a larger chain store. Even if some items are more expensive, it is always open and ready to meet one's needs. Municipal bylaws prohibit stores from opening on Shabbat, but unlike the mom-and-pop groceries, the chain's owners violate the regulations. The fines are no deterrent.

The effect on the urban environment does not end with the closure of the small grocery stores. The spread of a large grocery chain causes significant cultural change to the urban fabric. Tel Aviv, which has always enjoyed a range of shops and workshops and where producers, merchants and professionals have all participated in the life of the city - and in this way, the city resembles Amsterdam, San Francisco and New York rather than cities with no urban life such as Los Angeles or the Israeli bedroom community of Modi'in - is liable to gradually turn into a city with only a small number of chain stores, uniform in appearance and in content.

Apropos of this, a large stratum of people who work at simple retail sales jobs is forming in the city, in parallel with a much smaller stratum of wealthy employers. There are few job possibilities in sight.

This is a disturbing international trend that already has a name: the "mallification" of the urban street. In other cities around the world, attempts are being made to stop the phenomenon. For example, in Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco, California, municipal laws have been passed in recent years restricting the ability of "big-box" stores such as Walmart to open branches. In other cities, such as St. Paul, Minnesota and London, residents have organized anti-chain store protests to keep the big chains from taking over buildings in their neighborhoods.

The guiding principle behind these actions is that the spread of chain stores ruins the spirit and vitality of a city. Even if in the short term, it is pleasant and convenient to shop at a branch of a sophisticated chain, the long-term loss is great. Variety is the spice of urban life. A city is the sum of all the relationships between the forces of commerce, production and residency. A city without variety is a dead city, otherwise known as a suburb.