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Should I still “Buy Local First” when it means a more expensive, inferior product?

June 5, 2008

There is a big push among the independent retailers in the District to get people to shop at local stores instead of big chains. Until recently, non-auto-owning DC residents had little choice (for many consumer goods at least). But in the last decade or so, Bed Bath and Beyond, Macy’s and now Target have come into play, taking away customers from the smaller stores.

There are many virtues to small businesses, but telling me I am hurting the local economy by shopping at big stores instead of small chains is more than a bit disingenuous. How many jobs, and how much tax money is Target going to bring into the community? To suggest that only small business create local prosperity is wrong.

As Virginia Postrel notes in this excellent article defending chain stores, the argument that big stores destroy local character is also largely overblown, and missing the point of what communities actually are:

Stores don’t give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do. Familiar retailers may take some of the discovery out of travel-to the consternation of journalists looking for obvious local color-but by holding some of the commercial background constant, chains make it easier to discern the real differences that define a place: the way, for instance, that people in Chandler come out to enjoy the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools.

Big chain stores also drive innovation faster than a small group of local stores ever would:

They rapidly spread economic discovery-the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work. That knowledge can be gained only through the expensive and time-consuming process of trial and error. Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals.

Postrel also notes how city planners are very hesitant to invite big chain stores into their cities, even at the cost of losing customers, and tax dollars, to the suburbs:

The planning consultant Robert Gibbs works with cities that want to revive their downtowns, and he also helps developers find space for retailers. To his frustration, he finds that many cities actually turn away national chains, preferring a moribund downtown that seems authentically local. But, he says, the same local activists who oppose chains “want specialty retail that sells exactly what the chains sell-the same price, the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes, the same brands, even.” You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with nothing but the name changed, he says, and they’ll love the store.

There has been a backlash against chain stores that Postrel thinks has at least a little bit to do with snobbery from the self described “cosmopolitan” city residents:

Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain.

There is definitely a place for small businesses in our country and the city. While large scale innovation is easier at a large corporate level, small companies can be much more agile and quick to respond to changing consumer demands because they lack the bureaucracy and red tape present in just about all large companies. And most now big companies started out as small companies. Before it took over the world, Starbucks was just another humble Pacific Northwest coffeehouse.

If a small store can offer me a better (or cheaper) product than a big chain, I will definitely shop there. I choose to walk past the Starbucks in my neighborhood to a local coffeeshop. Not because I feel obligated to not support the mainstream coffee conglomeration, but because I like the taste of their coffee better.

And on the subject of coffee, what company has done more for marketing fair trade products than Starbucks? How many people has Starbucks introduced to sustainability and fair practices with farmers? Why does the Fair Trade movement continue to demonize a company that has done more free marketing for them than they could ever do on their own?

I don’t begrudge the “shop local” movement or the people who choose local stores over big chains. One day if I am a local store owner I will hope people will choose me over the big chains. But I will hope people are shopping at my store because it is more beneficial to them than my big store competition, not as some sort of pity payment.

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