I spent the Thanksgiving holiday back in the old hometown in mid-Missouri. My primary goal was to avoid being The Family with the Screaming Child on the Plane, and we were largely successful in that endeavor. The Better Half and I did most of the cooking, which is our habit and pleasure, though a pumpkin pie had been purchased ahead of time and thus no secret ingredients were on offer this year. It was a nice trip.
The day after the holiday, my brother and I dragged his girlfriend (who was visiting the town for the first time) on a run downtown. We ran up the main street and pointed out all the businesses that used to be there when we were kids. Almost all of them were gone. In fact, though we went for the run in the mid-afternoon on Black Friday in gorgeous weather, we saw maybe a half-dozen people on the street, tops. Downtown was, frankly, pretty bleak.
Contrast that with the Wal-mart supercenter where my dad and I went to get last-minute essentials two days before. The place was bustling, if not packed. While I didn’t go back the day after Thanksgiving, my guess is that it was pretty busy.
All of this was on my mind as I read E.D.’s post about the hidden costs of buying locally. He concludes:
So if you save money shopping at big box stores, go spend it doing something fun locally. Just buying goods locally doesn’t guarantee that you’ll help the local economy. Of course there may be some really great local shops that sell things the big boxes don’t carry, or who provide a better customer experience. The point I’m trying to make is simply that it’s never as straightforward as shop local. Sometimes it comes at a price you can’t even see.
I’m happy to concede a lot of points. First of all, it’s very easy for me to tell people they should shop local. I was raised in a financially secure household, and I have a good job that pays well now. Paying a premium to support a local business is not a burdensome cost. For people who aren’t so lucky, the savings reaped by shopping at a big box store make a meaningful difference in their financial security. Also, big box stores are convenient. After all, that’s where we decided to go when we needed a lot of disparate items. Though the selection was often thin and the quality of products on offer inconsistent, at least they had almost everything we needed in one location.
Obviously, what the people of my hometown want enough to spend their money on it is what Wal-mart and K-mart and Lowe’s have to offer at lower prices than local businesses can match. That’s the free market. But the costs are pretty obvious, too. Where there was once a thriving central business district and another nearby shopping plaza with several successful stores there are now run-down, depressingly empty storefronts. (In fairness, I should note that there are a few local businesses that seem to be doing well, including a couple of well-established restaurants.) There just aren’t all that many choices available there, even if one wants to shop local. The bookstore, hardware store and clothing stores of my childhood are all gone.
I don’t begrudge the people who still live in my hometown their preferences in retail outlet. Again, if they’d wanted the local businesses to survive they’d have shopped there more. For my part, the price seems awfully steep. Even if people wanted to spend the money they’d saved on a fun local option, their choices have gotten pretty thin.