On Tuesday, July 7, I did a short, basic piece on some of the buy-local hype on my local blog. The next day a friend called, having read my piece, and said I should check out the Journal.
There are two things that weren’t really addressed in the otherwise fine article (“Here, There and Everywhere,” July 9). One is that consumers look for service and price, and while they will sometimes sacrifice one for the other, in these hard times price will almost always win out. Local business owners are just like big box retailers in the fact that they are capitalists out to make a profit. Their intentions may be a bit less invasive to local economies, but they still operate off the same type of business plan as their competition: large profits and low operating costs. Just because The Works has a few stores in Humboldt, doesn’t mean the name of the game isn’t profit. My dollars mean a lot to me, so if I can find a CD cheaper online, I’ll get it there. Why should I shell out more money just because something is local?
And here’s where the other thing comes in. Local retailers are quick to shout about buying local, but they also go into non-local markets and compete there. 16 Hands Gallery is located in Michigan and carries decorative home items from Michigan crafters. Alongside these items can be found glassware from Humboldt County’s own Fire & Light. In fact, Fire and Light can be found at many retailers throughout the country, thereby taking money from local artists in those areas.
Let’s play fair, however, and say that many of the stores which carry Fire & Light products are local stores. I’ll grant that admission, though I still contend that a dollar spent on Fire & Light in Michigan is one less dollar spent on a Michigan artist. That also doesn’t explain Humboldt Clothing Company, another local business.
Humboldt Clothing Company operates a Web site where people from all over the world can order Humboldt-inspired clothing. What does our buy local movement say when it comes to people from outside the area buying our products? Does it tell them this is a bad idea? That their money should stay in their own communities? No, because the retailers here want those “foreign” dollars, too. (On a related note, it amazes me how many local business owners whine that they can’t compete with online retailers yet refuse to utilize the power of that tool.)
Humboldt business owners, many of whom I like and shop from, are no different from business owners (big and small) from anywhere else. They want our money and outside money, and they don’t want you going anywhere else. Local businesses, however, refuse to seriously address the price problem. They complain that big box retailers can buy in such huge numbers that they can offer lower prices, and then use scare tactics about how much of our dollar leaves the area when we shop at those retailers. At the same time, though, these big box retailers hire more of our citizens and draw in people from other towns that don’t have those big boxes. Those people get gas here, buy meals here and so on.
Big boxes may not be the best choice, but when you are watching every dollar they can sometimes be the only choice.
America’s version of capitalism is sick and cannibalistic at best. The small retailers are at a disadvantage, but it’s really the consumers who have to do a fine balancing act when it comes to their money. They also have to realize that while the local store may treat them well, its ultimate goal is to turn a profit and you are part of the means to do that. If your dollar dictates your buying, as it does for many people now, you often have no choice but to go with the lowest price. When local retailers finally confess to knowing that and get more honest about their intentions instead of just crying foul, then maybe we can pay some serious attention to the buy local battle cry. Until then, however, the only real difference between the two is the profit made, not the desire to make it ... and consumers will (hopefully) be the ultimate winner of that race to the bottom.
Doug Brunell, Eureka
Sweet Spot: Doug Brunell wins a Bon Boniere sundae for sending our favorite letter of the week.