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Geography of high order retail trade within North American cities Leigh, Roger

Abstract

This study examines the spatial characteristics of specialized (high order) retail trade within Vancouver, B.C. Conclusions arrived at are presumed applicable to most contemporary North American cities of a similar size range. Literature is examined in order to sift out existing generalizations concerning this class of retailing activities. The most persistent notions in the literature suggest: (i) that specialized (high order) retail businesses depend upon the infrequent purchases of a large threshold population for support, i.e. on an intra-city scale such businesses are oriented to a city-wide market for potential or eventual customers and their market hinterlands are thus presumed to be city-wide, embracing nests of lower order hinterlands; (ii) as a result, specialized, (high order) businesses are seen to be located centrally within the city since this is seen to be the point maximally accessible from across the entire city, and thus the optimum location for businesses depending on customers presumed scattered across the whole city. These ideas are basic to analysis of intra-city retail spatial organization in terms of distance minimizing theories, such as ecological theory and central place theory. However, close examination of the operating characteristics of specialized retail businesses questions these accepted concepts and their theoretical underpinnings. Especially it is stressed: (i) that specialized (high order) retailing tends towards monopolistic competition, since merchants attempt to attract customers through "product differentiation!' and "image projection". It is argued that this permits locational flexibility, not central fixation for specialized (high order) retail businesses: (ii) the normal background for retail activity in North America is a pluralistic socio-economic environment. Consequently, retail stores - especially specialized (high order) stores - are likely to appeal to socially distinctive and areally localized groups for custom. It is argued that this results in selective and morphologically sectoral (not indiscriminantly city-wide) market hinterlands for specialized (high order) stores. Recognition of these characteristics, and the subsequent welding of traditional geographical theories (ecological and central place theories) with insights from economic theory and sociological theory, enriches traditional geographical ideas in a context where existing ideas had hitherto been obscure or misleading. The same recognition also emphasizes that such traditional theories best explain the geography of low order retailing rather than high order retailing. The argument developed permits certain deductions about the locational and hinterland characteristics of specialized (high order) retail businesses to be made, which are phrased as hypotheses for test. Hypotheses are tested in Vancouver in terms of a number or stores identified as "high order". Hypotheses concerning the locational attributes of such stores are tested by interviews with store merchants and managers, to establish reasons for the choice of particular store locations and to discuss methods of business operation. Hypotheses concerning the hinterland characteristics of such stores are tested by the analysis of store hinterlands using credit record, sales slip and questionnaire derived data. This programme of interview and hinterland analysis yields a large number of case studies which are analysed in terms of hypotheses outlined. Many of these case studies are reported, with examples being chosen to cover all possible ramifications of the argument and a "spectrum" of "orders of good" being discussed in order to demonstrate changes in the geography of retail activities with changes in the "order of good" variable. Reporting of these case studies makes up the bulk of the study, and the evidence reported tends to confirm the hypotheses suggested and the arguments on which they rest. On the basis of the merchant interview programme, it is suggested that analysis of the cultural background and behavioural motives of merchants usefully illuminates patterns of location of high order retail businesses, now shown to be disparate, not centrally fixed. A verbal model is presented which systematizes the process of intracity retail site selection by business men, and which emphasizes this behavioural approach, to analysis of store location. Further implications of the argument concerning the internal structure of the city - especially in terms of the role of the C.B.D. in the contemporary city - are drawn out and made explicit as the study proceeds. One of these suggests that the C.B.D. may have lost its accessibility monopoly in the modern city, that centrality may have lost its value to certain traditionally core located activities, and that the historic market place in the centre of the city may have been replaced by a territorially larger area of the city (the "inner city market area") which now shares the accessibility advantages once enjoyed only by the C.B.D.

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