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 December 3, 1999

BIBA ‘chain’ ban a drain on vitality

And this comes direct from the mouth of a small independent publisher competing against some of the largest media chains in the country.

I understand why Bolduc and the Boulder Independent Business Alliance, BIBA, are worried. It’s much more than just chain stores threatening the independent’s livelihood. When President Clinton tells the world he’s Christmas shopping online, that’s pretty good evidence the times are a-changin’ for retail everywhere. Economists say discount stores, catalog sales and increasingly the Internet will get a bigger slice of an estimated $180 billion holiday shopping pie.

The Business Report has written about BIBA’s goals, and I respected their gumption to organize. Their guide to locally owned businesses was a good idea – one giving the consumer the chance to support the hard work of the small businessperson. I even considered joining. Until now.

BIBA’s proposal, misnamed the Community Vitality Act because it actually does just the opposite, has been delivered to city officials with its own list of ready-made answers to expected questions.

For example, BIBA asks: “Don’t people want the chain stores here, they wouldn’t be here if they were not being patronized?”

BIBA answer: “Many Boulderites want stores that provide for their unique tastes, not the standardized services, décor, uniforms, menus, etc. that they can get anywhere else in the country.” While that’s true, it overlooks how “many” Boulderites also enjoy the fashions, selection or products of stores like the Gap, Banana Republic, Barnes & Noble, Ann Taylor or Starbucks. Seems to me, business is pretty good at all of those un-unique places.

I suggest Bolduc wander down to his own business-book department and read any one of the volumes on sale there discussing free trade.

Keep in mind, too, that many “formula” or “chain” stores are owned or managed by people extremely active in the “local” marketplace. Notable among those are Ben & Jerry’s, Techline and the Walnut Brewery.

As co-owner and manager of a business nearing its 20th year as an independently owned publishing company, no one knows better how tough it is to compete against deep-pocketed chains. They can be ruthless. If you get a good idea, they’ll copy it. If you train an employee, they’ll hire them away with better pay and benefits. They’ll bring in high-paid consultants to teach their sales staff how to lure away your clients. Give them the slightest chance, and they’ll put you out of business.

Yet today, here in Boulder and in Fort Collins, we operate two newspapers that have both expanded to bi-weekly schedules and sometimes — not always — have beaten larger competitors to viable, new products.

I personally believe Bolduc and BIBA Director Jeff Milchen have stepped over the line — and I don’t predict anything but a business backlash coming from their call for anti-free trade restrictions. Bolduc simply loses credibility whey he insults the Boulder Chamber — one of the most active organizations assisting small businesses and start-ups — for not supporting his idea because, he says, it’s controlled by “real estate” interests.

I’m probably next up to be the guilty party. Yes, we run ads from real estate companies, even though many are locally owned. Yes, we run ads from banks, mortgage companies, insurance firms, health-care providers — even that “evil” empire of Microsoft. Without their advertising, this independent newspaper would not exist. Neither, for that matter, would the Daily Camera, Rocky Mountain News or Denver Post.

So far, I haven’t spoken to a single businessperson who believes such a draconian proposal such as this should even be worth city officials’ time to put it into the record.

What would have happened, let’s say, if this “non-formula” business ban existed when companies like Celestial Seasonings, Wild Oats, Alfalfa’s, Express Services, Fresh Produce, Valleylab, Storage Technology, White Wave Soy Foods, CareerTrack, Hauser Laboratories, McData Corp., BI Inc., Allegro Coffee and the endless list of other entrepreneurs launched as small companies? Why have they been able to succeed against much larger, nationally owned competitors?

The answer, of course, is simple.

They succeeded — and some now are large, nationally owned “chains” themselves — because they were better than the rest. They offered their customers the very best product or service they could.

They competed in the free marketplace, and they won.

And this comes direct from the mouth of a small independent publisher competing against some of the largest media chains in the country.

I understand why Bolduc and the Boulder Independent Business Alliance, BIBA, are worried. It’s much more than just chain stores threatening the independent’s livelihood. When President Clinton tells the world he’s Christmas shopping online, that’s pretty good evidence the times are a-changin’ for retail everywhere. Economists say discount stores, catalog sales and increasingly the Internet will get a bigger slice of an estimated $180 billion holiday shopping pie.

The Business Report has written about BIBA’s goals, and I respected…

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