When the store with a cult following comes to town

I recently ran into an article about “16 Brands That Have Fanatical Cult Followings.” This got me thinking about how people want certain stores to move near them. Take this example from this article as several people expressed how much they wanted a Wegmans.

On its website, Wegmans writes that in 2003, almost 5,800 loyal customers wrote “love letters” to the company, with almost half of the letters including pleas to build supermarkets in their communities. One letter included rewritten lyrics to “Yesterday” by the Beatles:

A Wegmans store, it seemed so far away.
But a new one opened in Dulles today.
Now I will drive
Towards Wegmans’ way.

Wegmans mania reached a new high when a group of musical theatre students in Massachusetts created an entire musical based on the brand. They rewrote popular Broadway songs in praise of the store.

That’s some devotion. And yet, this sort of interest isn’t uncommon. I’ll briefly mention some of the stores that prompt reactions from loyal residents and communities:

-Trader Joe’s is on this list. Multiple friends have told me how much they like this store and one mentioned how while on trips he was prone to finding the Trader Joe’s before leaving to grab things for home.

-I’ve heard similar things about Ikea.

-The article has an interesting conclusion: do some of the bigger brands count as cult favorites?

The infamous Cult of Mac spans far and wide, with a deep obsession with anything and everything Apple. Starbucks blankets America, driving endless droves of coffee-lovers to its baristas. Whole Foods fans swear by the huge supermarket chain’s pesticide free cantaloupes.

Are these followers still a cult if the companies they fawn over have grown into some of the world’s biggest and most successful multinational corporations?

I say yes. Even though these may be big brands, having one of these stores indicates that the community is on the map. This is a bit of strange logic – corporate America wants to be near us! – but it suggests some prestige. Plenty of communities around the United States would have to have a Starbucks. Now only would it bring in revenue and people, having a Starbucks indicates a community has a certain kind of customers (i.e., people with money to spend on coffee) and can also help attract other businesses. Second, I saw that several Facebook friends were very excited about Whole Foods moving to Mishawaka, Indiana. This is a classic case of a cult brand moving in: the South Bend/Mishawaka area is more blue-collar, middle America but having a Whole Foods suggests it has some more sophistication and wealthy residents. Third, Apple stores are less common so perhaps more meaningful: the Apple store in downtown Naperville suggests the place is akin to an upscale shopping mall or thriving big city.

Granted, there is some breaking point to this. Not every place is thrilled to have a Starbucks and some might argue that there are too many already (the company itself suggested this in recent years). In comparison, fewer people are thrilled about a Walmart moving in. There must be some threshold when too many chains are viewed negatively and start impinging on local culture. This threshold likely differs by type of place: places that hope to be “up and coming” likely welcome such stores while wealthier communities with some tradition and enough prestige resist such chains, no matter how cult friendly.

This discussion of cult brands also gets at the heart of Naomi Klein’s arguments in No Logo. Do we want to live in a world where people regularly select and interact with cult brands? Does this kind of devotion detract from more authentic civic life?

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