Chaos and Innovation

The last few weeks I have been thinking quite a bit about chain restaurants. At some point in the recent past, I started to really dislike your typical chain restaurant. Perhaps my wife and I were gifted too many gift cards to Darden Restaurants, but I find myself feeling slightly disdainful toward chains and longing for the uniqueness of small locally owned restaurants. I’ve had trouble keeping chain restaurants off my mind, and I have been asking why they become so popular, why people get so excited when they spread, and why they have such staying power.

 

In his book The Complacent Class, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen offers an answer. He describes chains as being popular because they make the choices easier for the consumer. They standardize their products and environments, making decisions for consumers easy and automatic. They are also easily recognizable and expensive chains can be a simple way to signal wealth. Their products and services in general probably won’t blow anyone away, but things will always be predictably decent.

 

Cowen offers this as an explanation for why chains dominate markets, but also cautions against this market domination. He writes:

 

“As chain stores rise, there is also a loss of dynamism, competition, and market entry for new ideas and products. Keep in mind that today’s major chain was once a small individual store on a street somewhere. A bit more economic chaos, even if it is inconvenient in the short run, actually tends to be correlated with higher rates of innovation.”

 

When you go to a chain restaurant, you can be pretty confident that you will get a decent meal. You can be sure that the menu won’t have anything too strange on it, so you can almost throw a dart and select something generally in line with your usual tastes.

 

Go to a street corner food vendor, a locally owned ethnic restaurant, or that fusion joint that recently popped up, and the guarantee that you will know what you want to order is gone. Ordering is more difficult and you won’t have the certainty that you will enjoy whatever you order. This is great if you want something unique and new, but if you don’t feel like making more tough choices at the end of the day, this is another obstacle to a full belly.

 

The problem, however, with chain restaurants is that once they become dominant, and once they have a menu where everything generally appeals to the median customer’s pallet, there is little incentive for new innovations in the food space. Marginal gains won’t be found in new menu items and unique flavors, but rather in smaller portions and new ways of cutting costs or managing the supply chain. We might get some efficiency gains in this model, but the innovation has nothing to do with the product or service we receive, it is entirely focused on further back-end standardization.

 

We may all be happy and get what we want from this type of model, but we might also be foregoing greater gains from new innovations to the actual products and services themselves. More competition between restaurants might lead to even more new fusion joints, and we might get to experience new irresistible flavors that far surpass the standardized food options at chain restaurants.  It may be chaotic and hard to sort through at times, but settling for easy products and services might make us worse off in the end than if we made more of an effort to find something interesting and excellent.