Thursday, August 07, 2008

From the Wild West

I'm out in Colorado on business for the better part of this week. I arrived on Monday morning and drove from Denver to Colorado Springs. I have been in Colorado Springs all week and I've been a little disturbed by a social phenomenon that I have experienced out here.

My first day here I was on the road travelling to Colorado Springs. It was past lunchtime, and those who know me can tell you how grouchy I am when I'm hungry. I saw a sign for Chipotle on the highway. I'm a big fan of burritos, and Chipotle was the first of the fresh burrito restaurants that I had ever experienced. So when I saw the sign I veered across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit dreaming of the burrito that would soon be in my belly.

Getting off the ramp, I saw I sign with the Chipotle logo, an arrow pointing left, and "0.25m". I followed these directions, still dreaming of my delicious burrito. To the left, I saw a shopping center about a quarter of a mile up. I figured that the restaurant would be in there.

I drove around the shopping center for twenty minutes and never found Chipotle. And when I say I drove around for twenty minutes, I don't mean in a circle around a parking lot. The shopping center was the size of a large sub-development and every building looked exactly the same. I didn't find Chipotle, so I went to Qdoba, another burrito joint partially owned by McDonalds.

When I got to Colorado Springs, I found a shopping complex that made the first look like a strip mall. The main complex in Colorado Springs is about two miles long and contains virtually every retail chain that you could imagine: Wal Mart, Kohl's, Target, Outback, Circuit City, Best Buy, TJ Maxx, etc., etc.

When I was driving by an Outback Steakhouse something occurred to me. It was the unbelievable size of these chains. Those who manage these chains at the highest level have no idea what is going on at the Colorado Springs location. These restaurants are a data point and they are governed by general principles and not by personal attention. What I mean is that someone decides that people like rough wood furniture, so every Outback gets the same pieces of fake handmade furniture. There is no personal attention.

This isn't something that is hard to notice. But to see the juggernaut-like size of these chains is staggering.

There is much more space and much more new construction out here than in New England. But it seems that things are moving this way. Most new developments in New England are of this type. I think of the Blackstone Shops in Millbury, Massachusetts and the proposed Loop development in Northborough, Mass.

I could get into the reasons why this is bad, and I probably will in a future post. But wandering around these consumer villages, I experience two sentiments. First, I'm hungry and I want my burrito. Second, I am concerned for a generation raised in an impersonal consumer atmosphere where everything is the same and nobody knows anybody.

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