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Monday, February 4, 2013

Buy Local

In a post a few days ago I touched on the importance of buying local. The focus of that post was the upcoming Second Saturday Biergarten Bazaar, and the main “buy local” point was that that many local brick-and-mortar stores got their start as at-home enterprises and at small events (craft fairs, expos, etc). There are many more good reasons for buying local, however, and I’d like to discuss a few of those now.

As a bookseller, I naturally look at buying local from the viewpoint of independent bookstores, but the concept is applicable to nearly every business you can think of. And in the end, while there are many reasons to buy local, it really boils down to two basic reasons: economic and social.

As corporate giants from Amazon to Walmart continue to dominate the global retail world, local businesses (from bookstores to hardware stores to grocers to clothing shops) find it harder than ever just to survive. Yet these locally owned businesses contribute far more to the local economy than retail chains, according to several studies by the American Bookseller Association.

Major retailers present some obvious advantages to consumers. Barnes and Noble, for example, offers everything from books to music to movies, and sell coffee as well. Their children's section is larger than many independents' entire store. And they offer deep discounts that smaller business often cannot match. Barnes and Noble offers a comfortable environment, with large overstuffed chairs where customers can browse through books before making a purchase.

But there are costs to such convenience that are not so obvious. National chains take far more out of a community economically than they ever put back in. According to a study conducted by the firm Civic Economics in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, trading independent retailers for big-box chains weakens the local economy. This occurs because while local stores recycle a much larger share of their sales revenue back into the local economy, chains siphon most of the dollars spent at their stores out of the community, sending them back to corporate headquarters or to distant suppliers.

The study applies to all local businesses, not only bookstores. The study found that spending $100 at one of the neighborhood's independent businesses created $68 in additional local economic activity, while spending $100 at a chain produced only $43 worth of local impact. The difference was due to four factors:

Local Payroll: The locally owned businesses spent a larger share of their revenue on local labor (29% vs. 23%), because they carried out all management functions on-site, rather than at a corporate headquarters.

Procurement: The local retailers spent more than twice as much buying goods and services from other local businesses. They banked locally; hired local accountants, attorneys, designers, and other professionals; advertised in local media; and where possible ordered inventory from local firms.

Profits: Because their owners live in the area, a larger portion of the local retailers' profits stayed within the local economy.

Charitable giving: The local retailers donated more on average to local charities and community organizations than the chains did.

Beyond the economic impact, the Andersonville study found that over 70% of the people surveyed actually prefer to patronize local businesses. Surveys have also shown that people prefer a more unique store and more personal interaction to the cookie-cutter, impersonal feel present in many large retailers. Sadly, many cities (including those as large as Dallas and Fort Worth) have no independent bookstore to patronize.

The personal interaction mentioned above is the other reason we need independent stores of all kinds, including bookstores. It may be hard to believe in the age of Facebook and Twitter, but there was a time when our social activity wasn’t done from a distance in front of computers. Bookstores, local coffee shops, and the like were among the places where people gathered to exchange and debate ideas on everything from literature to politics.

As important to readers as a lively discussion is helpful book recommendations from knowledgeable booksellers. Few of us can afford every book that catches our eye, so being able to avoid the bad ones is crucial. It is also a pleasant feeling in this increasingly disconnected society to see a familiar person who remembers that you like both the hard-boiled novels of Mickey Spillane and the occasional Agatha Christie. For me at least, ordering a book online can never replace ducking into a local bookstore on a rainy day, browsing down countless shelves of titles, usually ending up with a novel I’d never even heard of before that day, often based solely on the recommendation of the bookseller. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

Author Jon Katz recently addressed this issue in a post on the website Bedlamfarm.com. I’ll let him have the last word:

"Buying local is not a political notion to me, it is very personal, very important. Buying local affects and changes my life in so many different ways. I love buying things from people who know me. A kind of friendship develops, a mutual relationship that is important. It is foolish to sell junk at high prices to people who will be back in a couple of days, people you know. It is easy to do that online, customer and seller will never meet.

"But the tragedy of technology is that for every thing it brings, it takes something away. Post offices are closing, mega-chains have pressured community hardware stores, bookstores are fighting for their niche in the world. I'm shopping local. I don't want to live a life of loneliness and disconnection even if it might be cheaper. Price is important, but it is not the only thing that is important."

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