Friday, May 20, 2005

giant chain stores

I’ve been feeling a little guilty lately about the amount of business I’ve been doing with a couple of American chain stores here: Blockbuster and Starbucks.

Now, I realize that as far as giant chains go, Starbucks really isn’t all that evil: I’m told that they treat their workers well, they support good social causes, and that they buy a lot of Free Trade coffee. But they still use the unfair advantage of massive corporate strength to overwhelm and eliminate locally owned coffee shops, so I’ve always preferred to buy coffee from the little guy.

Here in Mexico, however, what draws me to Starbucks (other than the fact that it’s right down the street from my place of work) is that it’s one of the few places where I can get a cup of coffee just the way I like it: brewed and with milk added. You can order a ‘café americano’ just about anywhere, but it’s usually just an espresso shot with hot water, which has a slightly different taste than the brewed coffee that I’m used to. Starbucks not only serves brewed coffee, it’s just about the only place I’ve found that sets out pitchers of milk and half and half. When I ask for a ‘café Americano con leche’ at other coffee shops, I usually end up with a cappuchino, and when I try to explain to the clerk that I would like them to pour some plain-old cold milk into my coffee, they often look at me like I’ve just asked them to spit in it.

So yeah, I’m an ugly American when it comes to demanding my coffee be just-so. But old habits are hard to break, I guess.

Now let me try to justify Blockbuster.

Part of the reason that I’ve ended up with a Blockbuster membership is because they seem to be the only game in town. In Oaxaca and Queretaro, where I lived previously, there were plenty of small mom and pop video rental shops as well as a Mexican chain, Videocentro.

Another reason I do business with Blockbuster is that they rent Zone 1-formatted DVDs. See, movie distribution companies format DVDs differently for the various regions of the world, I suppose to make it difficult for people in a country like Mexico to watch a movie that hasn’t yet been officially released here. So for that reason, DVD players sold in each region of the world are set to play DVDs for that particular region. I watch DVDs on my laptop, which I bought in the States and is therefore formatted for Zone 1. Mexico is Zone 4 so most video shops here rent Zone 4-formatted discs. With a laptop, you can change your DVD zone preference, but only up to 4 or 5 times before it’s locked permanently. Since I have a fair collection of my own DVDs that I bought in the U.S., after a couple of changes I would have to choose between watching locally rented movies or those in my own collection. Since Blockbuster rents Zone 1 DVDs, I don’t have to make that choice. Seems like a giant corporate conspiracy, doesn’t it?

Also, Walmart is another huge chain in Mexico that has generated quite a big uproar with their decision to build near Tenochitlan, outside of Mexico City.

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