Big Box v. Buy Local: Hidden Costs and Hidden Benefits

Another great post at the Madville Times on “Recession Zen” that inspired me to muse further on my own blog after leaving an extended comment there.

In reading through the comments to Cory’s post, I encountered one of the usual arguments against buying locally in favor of low price big box stores in the “big” cities (sorry, Sioux Falls, but I have to use the irony quotes when I call you that).  The argument goes something like, “local stores are too expensive–it’s cheaper to drive to Sioux Falls and buy–even with the cost of gas.”

There are lots of costs hidden by the straightforward equation, ” is the local price more than the big-box price plus gas to get there and back?”  There is the price of the meal you’re going to have when you’re there in the big city.  There is the cumulative cost of the wear and tear on your tires and your vehicle.  There is the, “oh, while we’re here, why don’t we check out ____?” cost, too.

This is not to say that certain things aren’t just way, way less at the big box–say something you need a large quantity of (have you asked around locally for a discount?), or something that’s just not available locally (can you put it on order?).  But for many purchases, there are not only hidden costs to going out of town, there are hidden benefits to buying locally.

I am on a limited budget, so when I make a decision to shop locally, it’s not simply an altruistic, do-gooder thing.  What I’ve noticed about my local shopping–for groceries, of course, but also for home improvements and even bigger-ticket items like appliances–is that it tends to create relationships with business-owners and employees that often result in little extras–a little extra service, a little extra advice or information, a little extra discount.

The other day I was in Jones’ and Vermillion’s favorite conservative and natural foodie, Jozef, saw that I was buying a big tub of Mountain High yogurt.  He ran to the paper, looking for the coupon he knew they had for that item, and when he couldn’t find it right away, he went to the drawer and took the fifty cents I would’ve saved if I’d had the coupon and put it right in my hand.

Oftentimes, prices are a bit higher in my local, downtown hardware store than in the uptown or big box stores.  But for the most part, I put that little bit extra down where it is most convenient for me.  Living close to downtown, it’s important to me to be able to pick up a lightbulb or a drillbit or some other tool I really need in ten or fifteen minutes flat–and that’s walking.  Too, the employees recognize me and are friendly and helpful (though I’m a little embarrassed when they remember to ask if I’ve yet used that housepaint I bought two years ago).

Supporting local businesses isn’t just about do-gooder-ism.  It’s about convenience and service, and keeping those businesses alive and viable and just plan there when you need them.  If you have a small business (as I do) and your market is local (like mine is), you start to become very aware of those local dollars coming your way, and you start to be more aware of where those local dollars go when they leave your hand.

If you want that downtown hardware store to continue to exist when you really need them, you have to shop there even when it isn’t an emergency.  If you want the ability to eat good, fresh, local food in your community, then you have to buy it regularly enough that it will continue to be a viable business endeavor for the farmers.

Our local businesses are a great resource.  When gas prices start to go up again (and they will), we on fixed budgets may be forced to consider our local resources as our main (or only) resources.  But, if we do not support those local businesses now, we may not have them to fall back on then.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you thank you thank you for this wonderful post!! I live in New Orleans and am very committed to keeping our mixed use neighborhoods intact — walking within a few blocks for nails, soap, medicines, clothes, food, coffee, cakes, toys and whatever else isn’t just about convenience. It’s knowing the shopkeepers, who are also my neighbors. It’s keeping them supported and here. It’s showing that I care enough to use what is around me so that they stay open and part of what makes this place unique and special. Of course money is tight for everyone, but the constant emphasis on thrift has such constant oversight of community and people that I find it frustrating and sad. You so nicely summed it all up.

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