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Technology

Do Mobile Apps Like Yelp Herald a Boom for Mom-and-Pop Shops?

Yelp

Consider what a site like Yelp does for a small but excellent cafe: For travelers and locals alike, a good mobile-Web app should make it as easy to find as the nearest Starbucks. Does that signal a shift in the market, sapping the marketing power and ubiquity of big chains? Conor Friedersdorf, blogging in place of Andrew Sullivan, thinks so:

What I am hoping—I'm stealing this insight from a conversation, but I don't remember who I had it with—is that Yelp plus smart phones, and other similar applications, will tip the competitive balance away from chain restaurants and toward exceptional independent eateries, bars and coffee shops. The uncertainty that is a cost of trying these establishments is growing ever lower with crowd-sourced ratings and reviews that are readily accessible even in neighborhoods far from where one lives. There is some lost fun finding hidden gems oneself, but I nevertheless welcome my new Yelp overlords.
When I aired these thoughts at The American Scene, a commenter wrote, "I find something touchingly, heart-warmingly naive in the belief that the existence of broad, for-profit services with remarkable customization and targeting abilities will in the end favor small independent establishments over large faceless corporations with their own electronic communications/social media staff." I disagree. The social media staffs of most corporations aren't nearly savvy enough to fool or surpass the combined knowledge of Yelp users.

It's an intriguing idea, but one that's ultimately unconvincing.

Friedersdorf does make a good point: Crowd-sourced ratings do level the field, somewhat. After all, the biggest advantage that big chains have is a guarantee that even if they don't offer the best of things, they at least offer a known offering. That uncertainty alone is part of what has propelled big chains to the top—the American in Paris doesn't want to get hoodwinked into a crappy croissant, they want that McDonald's burger, just like they've got at home. Local-Web is a good way of leading you to small, high-quality places that you might not ordinarily trust or find.

But consider this: The present mix we see in the market, between big chains and independent stores, is, if nothing else, a reflection of what people actually prefer. For decades, people have been voting with their dollars, and what they've produced is the leisure landscape we have today.

Mobile Web makes it easier for people to find what they want—but it can't change what people want. Just as the difficulty associated with finding the perfect coffee shop is shrinking, the difficulty of finding a Starbucks is shrinking faster, as it and its big-chain brethren jump on the AR bandwagon. Just witness Acrossair's newest AR browser platform—you'll note that it's pitched to big businesses hoping to creating easier ways to point people to their offerings.

Whenever you see people waxing prophetic about the influence of technology, it's almost always because they're confusing a tool with what that tool expresses: Techno-utopians through the ages have argued is that new tools change the way we do things, but also how we think. Ultimately, it's at best a mix of both—there's no doubt that adventurous souls into trying something unique have an easier time of it now. But asking something like Yelp to change the way we eat is like asking a mirror for advice on what to wear. In the end, it's you making the decisions.

[Via Andrew Sullivan]

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