Is buying local worth the extra cost?
You won't find that extra customer service in most big-box stores.
When I was in college, there was a local independent bookstore not too terribly far from campus. The name completely escapes me now, but I could still almost walk to it blindfolded.
It was a very popular hangout for the heavy-reading crowd and the store did all it could to maximize customer loyalty, both with students and people in the broader community.
They had book clubs, author signings, frequent-buyer programs, and countless other little perks, plus the staff was spectacular at finding books you’d never heard of that were just perfect for your reading tastes.
That store is now out of business.
There was also an independent record store. The owner (and constant checkout clerk) was this burnt-out guy who looked like he'd pretty much seen it all. The store was constantly playing eclectic music and had that perfect independent record store atmosphere.
What made it special was that you could roughly describe your musical tastes to the guy, he'd nod, go flip through a few giant stacks of CDs, put something in the store's audio system, and you'd immediately hear this perfect music that you'd never heard before.
Similarly, if you wanted to hear something that he didn't have an opened copy of, he'd shrug his shoulders, cut open the CD or record, and play it for you so you could make up your mind if it was worthwhile. If you didn't want to buy it, he didn't seem to mind too much.
He'd also have artists in his shop regularly. They'd sit in the corner and play acoustic sets, and sell and sign their CDs or records.
That store is now out of business.
Another shop I frequented was a gaming and comics shop. It sponsored free events literally every night of the week, allowing people to play games for free just to enjoy themselves. They had comic artists in the shop frequently and would commission the artists to draw a few pieces, then give the pieces away in a free raffle. The staff at the store would immediately break the shrink wrap on any item you wanted to look at and were fonts of information if you were looking for something in particular.
That store is barely surviving.
Why did those stores, with the great customer service they offered, close up shop? To put it simply, they couldn't compete with the lower prices offered by big-box stores or the Internet. Rather than paying full price for a book, people would go to Amazon and get a 25% discount. Rather than paying full price for a CD, people would go to Wal-Mart and get most of their music needs fulfilled for $2 or $3 cheaper. Rather than buying games or comics in the shop, people would go online and order straight from a distributor for a 20% discount.
From the perspective of the individual customer, they're saving a few bucks and they get what they want in the short run.
In the long run, though, the businesses died not from one big problem, but from a thousand small cuts. Then the people who got a lot of value from the customer service realized -- too late -- that those services were gone. The book clubs went away. The free game nights vanished. The recommendations from someone with countless years of music listening experience were gone. The opportunity to meet artists and writers face-to-face went up in smoke. The staff with tons of expertise on the topics you were interested in vanished.
Instead, we're left with poorly trained salespeople at big- box stores and Internet recommendations written by clever marketers.
The real story here isn't some sort of guilt trip about how seeking the bottom dollar has killed Main Street. That's not the case at all. I encourage everyone to seek the absolute best value for their dollar that they can find.
But what's the best value for your dollar? Is it worth it to you to pay $3 more for a book once in a while so that there's a local place that has author signings? Is it worth it to pay $11 for a CD from a wise old guy who just opened up three new CDs for you to listen to so you could find the right one and would throw in a free Phish bootleg if you asked? Is it worth it to pay MSRP for a graphic novel so that you can meet the artist the next time he's in town doing a signing?
That's the type of thing your extra few dollars buy you. For some people, it's worth it. For other people, it's not.
But many people, those who are just seeking the absolute bottom dollar on the item, have never considered whether that lowest possible price is actually the best value for their money.
Whenever you're thinking of purchasing an item, step back and ask yourself what you're actually buying. Are you just buying an item for personal enjoyment? Or are you supporting something larger that you enjoy and value participating in?
What do I do? I mix it up. I'm quite happy to pay a little more to buy items from local businesses, but I don’t shop them exclusively, either. I usually try to ask myself if the business is adding extra value to my life beyond the item -- and if it's adding extra value to the community I care about. The more emphatic the "yes," the more likely I am to support them with my business.
This is a decision we all have to make on our own. There is no right or wrong answer. But we all get to contribute to the final result with how we spend our money.
The answer? Do what you always do. Seek the best value and keep in mind, for you, what the best value really is.
Related reading at The Simple Dollar:
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