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Chain store

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A chain store or retail chain is a retail outlet in which several locations share a brand, central management and standardized business practices. They have come to dominate the retail and dining markets and many service categories, in many parts of the world. A franchise retail establishment is one form of a chain store. In 2005, the world's largest retail chain, Walmart, became the world's largest corporation based on gross sales.[1]


Heritage W.H. Smith stall at Pickering railway station in North Yorkshire

In 1792, Henry Walton Smith and his wife Anna established W.H. Smith as a news vending business in London that would become a national concern in the mid-19th century under the management of their grandson William Henry Smith.[2][3] The world's oldest national retail chain, the firm took advantage of the railway boom during the Industrial Revolution by opening news-stands at railway stations beginning in 1848.[3] The firm, now called WHSmith, had more than 1,400 locations as of 2017.[4]

In the U.S., chain stores likely began with J. Stiner & Company, which operated several tea shops in New York City around 1860.[5] By 1900, George Huntington Hartford had built The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, originally a tea distributor based in New York, into a grocery chain that operated almost 200 stores. Dozens of other grocery, drug, tobacco, and variety stores opened additional locations, around the same time, so that retail chains were common in the United States by 1910. Several state legislatures considered measures to restrict the growth of chains, and in 1914 concern about chain stores as a factor in passage of the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Clayton Antitrust Act.[6]

Post card ad listing eight cities and towns where Dewachter Frères offered "ready-to-wear clothes and by measure for men and children," c. 1885

Isidore, Benjamin and Modeste Dewachter originated the idea of the chain department store in Belgium in 1868,[7][8] ten years before A&P began offering more than coffee and tea. They started with four locations for Maisons Dewachter (Houses of Dewachter): La Louvière, Mons, Namur and Leuze.[7] They later incorporated as Dewachter frères (Dewachter Brothers) on January 1, 1875.[9] The brothers offered ready-to-wear clothing for men and children and specialty clothing such as riding apparel and beachwear.[8] Isidore owned 51% of the company, while his brothers split the remaining 49%.[9] Under Isidore's (and later his son Louis') leadership, Maisons Dewachter would become one of the most recognized names in Belgium and France with stores in 20 cities and towns. Some cities had multiple stores, such as Bordeaux, France.[8][10][11] Louis Dewachter also became an internationally known landscape artist, painting under the pseudonym Louis Dewis.

By the early 1920s, chain retailing was well established in the United States, with A&P, Woolworth's, American Stores, and United Cigar Stores being the largest.[12] By the 1930s, chain stores had come of age, and stopped increasing their total market share. Court decisions against the chains' price-cutting appeared as early as 1906, and laws against chain stores began in the 1920s, along with legal countermeasures by chain-store groups.[13] State taxes on chain stores were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1931. Between then and 1933, 525 chain-store tax bills were introduced in state legislatures, and by the end of 1933 special taxes on retail chains were in force in 17 states.[14]


A chain store is characterised by the ownership or franchise relationship between the local business or outlet and a controlling business.

Difference between a "chain" and formula retail[edit]

While chains are typically "formula retail", a chain refers to ownership or franchise, whereas "formula retail" or "formula business" refers to the characteristics of the business.[15] There is considerable overlap because key characteristic of a formula retail business is that it is controlled as a part of a business relationship, and is generally part of a chain. Nevertheless, most codified municipal regulation relies on definitions of formula retail (e.g., formula restaurants),[16][17][18] in part because a restriction directed to "chains" may be deemed an impermissible restriction on interstate commerce (in the US), or as exceeding municipal zoning authority (i.e., regulating "who owns it" rather than the characteristics of the business).[19][20] Non-codified restrictions will sometimes target "chains". A municipal ordinance may seek to prohibit "formula businesses" in order to maintain the character of a community and support local businesses that serve the surrounding neighborhood.[21]


Brick-and-mortar chain stores have been in decline as retail has shifted to online shopping, leading to historically high retail vacancy rates.[22] The hundred-year-old Radio Shack chain went from 7,400 stores in 2001 to 400 stores in 2018.[23] FYE is the last remaining music chain store in the United States and has shrunk from over 1,000 at its height to 270 locations in 2018.[24] In 2019, Payless ShoeSource stated that it would be closing all remaining 2,100 stores in the US.[25]

Restaurant chains[edit]

Opening the first of its chain of teashops in 1894, branch of Lyons in Reading, Berkshire pictured in 1945
A Subway franchise restaurant

A restaurant chain is a set of related restaurants in many different locations that are either under shared corporate ownership or franchising agreements.[26] Typically, the restaurants within a chain are built to a standard format through architectural prototype development and offer a standard menu and/or services.[16] Fast food restaurants are the most common, but sit-down restaurant chains also exist.[27] Restaurant chains locations are often found near highways, shopping malls and densely populated urban or tourist areas.


In 1896, Samuel Isaacs from Whitechapel, east London opened the first fish and chips restaurant (as opposed to a take-away) in London, and its instant popularity led to a chain comprising 22 restaurants with locations around London and seaside resorts in southern England including Brighton, Ramsgate and Margate.[28][29] In 1864, the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) began operating a chain of teashops in Britain. ABC would be overtaken as the leader in the field by Lyons, co-founded by Joseph Lyons in 1884. From 1909 Lyons began operating a chain of teashops which became a staple of the High Street in the UK, and at its peak, the firm numbered around 200 cafes.[30]


The displacement of independent businesses by chains has sparked increased collaboration among independent businesses and communities to prevent chain proliferation. These efforts include community-based organizing through Independent Business Alliances (in the U.S. and Canada) and "buy local" campaigns. In the U.S., trade organizations such as the American Booksellers Association and American Specialty Toy Retailers do national promotion and advocacy. NGOs like the New Rules Project and New Economics Foundation provide research and tools for pro-independent business education and policy while the American Independent Business Alliance provides direct assistance for community-level organizing.

Regulation and exclusion[edit]

A variety of towns and cities in the United States whose residents wish to retain their distinctive character—such as San Francisco;[31] Provincetown, Massachusetts and other Cape Cod villages; Bristol, RI;[32] McCall, Idaho; Port Townsend, Washington; Ogunquit, Maine; Windermere, Florida and Carmel-by-the-Sea, California—closely regulate, even exclude, chain stores. They don't exclude the chain itself, only the standardized formula the chain uses, described as "formula businesses".[33] For example, there could often be a restaurant owned by McDonald's that sells hamburgers, but not the formula franchise operation with the golden arches and standardized menu, uniforms, and procedures. The reason these towns regulate chain stores is aesthetics and tourism.[33] Proponents of formula restaurants and formula retail allege the restrictions are used to protect independent businesses from competition.[21][34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Wal-Mart Stores on the Forbes Global 2000 List". Forbes. Archived from the original on May 18, 2012. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  2. ^ "WH Smith expansion is given wings with takeover of Marshall Retail". The Times. Retrieved June 22, 2022. WH Smith is the world's oldest national retail chain after being started by Henry Smith as a newspaper shop in 1792
  3. ^ a b "History of WHSmith - About WHSmith". Whsmithplc.co.uk. Archived from the original on December 29, 2011. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  4. ^ "Our stores - About WHSmith". Whsmithplc.co.uk. Archived from the original on October 26, 2017. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  5. ^ Marc Levinson, The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, 2nd ed (2019), p. 14.
  6. ^ Levinson, p. 67.
  7. ^ a b Le Pantheon de L'Industrie, Paris, 1891, Page 20
  8. ^ a b c "The Dewis Collection - The Art of Louis Dewis". Louisdewis.com. Archived from the original on August 21, 2017. Retrieved February 18, 2019.
  9. ^ a b Annexes to the Belgian Monitor of 1875. Acts, Extracts of Acts, Minutes and Documents relating to Corporations, Book #3, Page 67
  10. ^ France, Maison Dewachter, Bordeaux (August 2, 2018). "English: This is the letterhead for the Bordeaux location of Maison Dewachter, a chain of men's and boys' clothing stores in Belgium and France". Archived from the original on May 3, 2018. Retrieved August 2, 2018 – via Wikimedia Commons.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ "Magasins de prêt-à-porter sur Montpellier". Dewachter.fr. Archived from the original on January 10, 2019. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
  12. ^ Hayward WS, White P, Fleek HS, Mac Intyre H (1922). "The chain store field". Chain Stores: Their Management and Operation. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 16–31. OCLC 255149441.
  13. ^ Lebhar GM (1952). Chain Stores in America: 1859–1950. New York: Chain Store Publishing Corp. OCLC 243136.
  14. ^ Levinson, p. 122.
  15. ^ "Formula Business | legal definition of Formula Business by Law Insider". www.lawinsider.com. Archived from the original on August 31, 2020. Retrieved August 31, 2020.
  16. ^ a b Town of Jaffrey Planning Board Proposed Zoning Changes Summary Archived June 13, 2018, at the Wayback Machine, Public Hearing January 22, 2018, Town of Jaffrey, New Hampshire (.pdf)
  17. ^ Permit how-to guides - chain stores (formula retail use) Archived June 2, 2018, at the Wayback Machine, Planning Dept., City and Cty. of San Francisco
  18. ^ "Chapter 17.54 FORMULA RETAIL AND RESTAURANT ESTABLISHMENTS". Codepublishing.com. Archived from the original on June 26, 2018. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  19. ^ The Park at Cross Creek v. City of Malibu Archived June 25, 2018, at the Wayback Machine Calif. Ct. App., 2nd. Dist. Filed 21-Jun-2017 (.pdf)
  20. ^ Chain Store Ordinance Resurrected From the Dead Archived November 5, 2017, at the Wayback Machine, The Malibu Times 1-Nov-2017
  21. ^ a b "Formula Business Restrictions". Institute for Local Self-Reliance. December 2008. Archived from the original on May 24, 2018. Retrieved May 23, 2018.
  22. ^ "Amid brick-and-mortar shakeup, Greater Hartford's retail vacancy rate shrinks". Hartford Business Journal. Archived from the original on January 8, 2019. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
  23. ^ Carter, Clint (November 27, 2018). "RadioShack Is Now Selling in Unexpected Places. Will Anyone Buy?". Entrepreneur. Archived from the original on December 1, 2018. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
  24. ^ "Bob Higgins, Pioneering Founder of Trans World and FYE, Dead at 75". Billboard. Archived from the original on December 6, 2018. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
  25. ^ Business, Ahiza Garcia, CNN (February 16, 2019). "Payless is closing all its 2,100 US stores". CNN. Archived from the original on February 19, 2019. Retrieved February 19, 2019. {{cite web}}: |last= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  26. ^ Jakle, J.A.; Sculle, K.A. (2002). Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. The road and American culture. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 68–. ISBN 978-0-8018-6920-4. Archived from the original on July 27, 2020. Retrieved December 29, 2017.
  27. ^ "The 20 best chain restaurants in America". Business Insider France (in French). Archived from the original on August 27, 2017. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  28. ^ Jolles, Michael A.; Rubinstein, W. (2011). The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 457.
  29. ^ Walton, John K. Fish and Chips, and the British Working Class, 1870-1940. A&C Black. p. 34.
  30. ^ "Bawden and battenberg: the Lyons teashop lithographs". The Guardian. Retrieved June 26, 2022.
  31. ^ "Compromise reached on San Francisco's chain store limits". Sfgate.com. November 5, 2014. Archived from the original on March 12, 2017. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  32. ^ "USATODAY.com - Cities put shackles on chain stores". Usatoday30.usatoday.com. Archived from the original on March 12, 2017. Retrieved August 2, 2018.
  33. ^ a b Analysis of Cities with Formula Business Ordinances Archived May 23, 2018, at the Wayback Machine, Malibu, California (.pdf)
  34. ^ "Cape Cod Residents Keep the Chain Stores Out" Archived November 18, 2016, at the Wayback Machine article by Beth Greenfield June 8, 2010

Further reading[edit]

  • Carroll, Glenn R., and Magnus Thor Torfason. "Restaurant Organizational Forms and Community in the US in 2005." City & Community 10#1 (2011): 1–24.
  • Ingram, Paul, and Hayagreeva Rao. "Store Wars: The Enactment and Repeal of Anti‐Chain‐Store Legislation in America." American Journal of Sociology 110#2 (2004): 446–487.
  • Lebhar, Godfrey Montague, and W. C. Shaw. Chain stores in America, 1859-1962 (Chain Store Publishing Corporation, 1963).
  • Levinson, Marc. "The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America" (2019). ISBN 978-0-578-56210-0.
  • Matsunaga, Louella. The changing face of Japanese retail: Working in a chain store (Routledge, 2012).
  • Newman, Benjamin J., and John V. Kane. "Backlash against the 'Big Box', Local Small Business and Public Opinion toward Business Corporations." Public Opinion Quarterly 78#4 (2014): 984–1002.
  • Phillips, Charles F. "The Chain Store in the United States and Canada," American Economic Review 27#1 (1937), pp. 87–95 in JSTOR
  • Schragger, Richard. "The Anti-Chain Store Movement, Localist Ideology, and the Remnants of the Progressive Constitution, 1920-1940." Iowa Law Review 90 (2005): 1011+.
  • Scroop, Daniel. "The anti-chain store movement and the politics of consumption." American Quarterly 60#4 (2008): 925–949.
  • Winship, Janice. "Culture of restraint: the British chain store 1920–39." Commercial Cultures: Economies, Practices, Spaces 31 (2000).

External links[edit]