Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Anchor Store Myth

Back in the early 60s, when shopping malls starting popping up everywhere, mall planners across the country coined the term anchor store, and the theory was born that large national department chains would draw shoppers to the mall, bringing customers to the small shops.

The theory maintained that small shops couldn't draw customers on their own. Perhaps, if you mean one shop, alone out in the wilderness, away from towns, like the malls were. But no one ever questions whether a department store, alone, with plenty of competition in surrounding communities, could draw customers by itself. I think the big stores NEED the small unique stores to bring people in, more than vice versa.

In the 60s, Norristown had 2 downtown department stores, and a Sears being built at Logan Square. My family shopped in all of them. We didn't need another department store. What drew us to King of Prussia were the little shops -- the Sticky Bun Bakery and 2 bookstores, in particular, because our family went through amazing amounts of books and sticky buns each week. We were regulars at the library, but never had enough books, and we couldn't get the sticky buns in town. I don't remember ever going into the Woolworth store at the Plaza--didn't need to, we not only had a Woolworth's on Main, but a Grant's too, that sold most of the same things.

In other words, if we could get what we wanted closer to home, we did. But the smaller, unique shops had things we couldn't get in Norristown. THAT'S what enticed us into the malls. That, and things like seeing the decorations at Christmas time.

Since Norristown started losing retail sales to the malls, all the bigwigs in the borough have claimed, over and over, that one anchor store--or in lieu of that, any national chain--will save the town. We changed traffic patterns for the Ports of the World store at Logan Square. We let a beautiful movie theater be demolished to put up a McDonalds. We let CVS level our YMCA. We plopped AutoZone right in the middle of our downtown where it doesn't blend into any of its surroundings. We courted Walmart for years, but settled for a Walgreens up on W. Main.

Did any of these stores improve Norristown's economy? Did they lure outside customers, who'd spend money in our small shops? Of course not. The thing is, the national chains are all over the area. No one HAS to come into Norristown to get to them. No one tweets "At the CVS in Norristown. Isn't this the best store ever?"

What I have seen are postings about our local restaurants, groceries, and small specialty stops. We have a bunch of new eating places opening downtown and on W. Marshall (I'll list them in a future blog). I found out about them because people are talking about them online. Try them out and, if you like them, tell your friends. I know people  who come from as far as Malvern to eat in our restaurants. They never come for the national chains.

Don't get me wrong--the national stores can serve certain needs of our own residents, providing products not found in our borough. But they aren't enticing outsiders into Norristown, and our economy needs frequent injections of new money to grow.

So it's time to recognize the "anchor store" or "national chain" concept for the myth it is (probably perpetrated by the national stores themselves). Instead, let's put the same time and taxpayer money into promoting our unique local shops. Fix up our shopping districts so they look inviting, and offer free parking. Dress up these areas for holidays and festivals.

Like I've said before:  make Norristown a destination.


  1. Phoenixville is further out and has a lovely shopping area and food stuffs with no national chain- New Hope, Narberth, Jenkintown, even Bridgeport is thinking like that and getting customers (I say, as someone who goes for particular shops)

  2. What Phoenixville does is host a First Friday where the stores (and town) do something special. Maybe a 3rd friday or something with discount coupons for parking...?