|We don’t shop much. We’re empty-nesters, so there’s no one outgrowing or wearing out stuff to buy for. We know what we like to eat, so we grocery shop once a month. When we buy gifts, we buy, as a matter of principle, only Canadian-made, and when possible even locally-made products. Books and CDs, our two main categories of purchases, are almost all printed and made in Canada.
So on those occasions when we do go shopping, say for a sweater for someone or high-efficiency light bulbs or other repair and replacement parts, we’re particularly aware of the paucity of Canadian-made products, the horrendous quality of all the Chinese junk that fills most stores, and the excessive and wasteful packaging that is needed for this shoddy merchandise to make the overseas trek without breaking and to attract the attention of impulse buyers. We always make a point of commenting to store-owners our dissatisfaction with this sorry state, and they shrug sheepishly and say “that’s what sells”.
I’d like to prove them wrong. I know for a fact that the local farmers’ markets in the summer do excellent business and provide, for the most part, good value. I know a lot of people who are outraged that Roots, the clothing store that covers itself and its products in the Canadian flag, sells almost nothing made in Canada.
So suppose there was a department store in your local shopping mall that sold only locally-made products: Groceries, clothing, shoes, hardware, housewares, appliances, plants and other seasonal goods, gifts, automotive supplies, the whole nine yards. Suppose that it offered a range of products as comprehensive as Wal-Mart or Sears. And suppose that, on average, its merchandise cost 30% more than Wal-Mart’s. Would you shop there? And if it had an online presence would you give it your e-business as well?
The pros and cons, I think, are pretty obvious. Keeping jobs in the community and the country, rewarding companies that don’t offshore. Getting, usually, better quality goods that last longer (and so are actually a bargain in the long run). Having recourse to the manufacturer directly in cases where there is a quality problem. Saving the environment (less energy used in shipping raw materials overseas and shipping finished goods back, less packaging, less junk thrown in the landfill a year after you bought it).
But I’m not sure the majority of buyers, or even a large enough minority of buyers, would see these advantages as being enough to warrant paying more and buying less. Several of our local malls used to have handicraft co-ops in them, where you could buy locally hand-crafted products and artwork from about 50 different artisans, but they closed because they didn’t do enough business to pay the rent. Was this because they didn’t sell staple goods, only giftware? Or because they were gouged as non-anchor tenants in an expensive mall? Or because people just aren’t willing to pay more for locally-made products?
Are there examples where ‘buy local’ stores have been great successes, or spectacular failures? Is it important that the goods be made in or near your community, or is made in [your country] good enough? Would people shopping in such stores be looking for other attributes of responsibility as well (company making the goods is 100% locally or domestically owned; goods are union-made or otherwise certified worker-friendly; goods are organic or EnerStar or otherwise certified environment-friendly)? Would it attract more people if, in product categories evaluated by Consumer Reports, it stocked only products rated good-to-excellent by other consumers? What other attributes of such a store would attract you, or at least address some of the issues you were skeptical about?
I’ve already confessed I’m not your typical shopper, and I’ll also confess that I don’t understand consumer buying habits or why anyone in their right mind would start a retail business in today’s cutthroat anti-entrepreneurial environment. But it seems to me there’s an opportunity here, an opportunity to tell the corporatists and their hapless suppliers that consumers care about quality, the local economy, decent job opportunities and working conditions, and a clean environment. Yes?
In the meantime, here’s a reminder, at this busy shopping season, of the Pledge to Buy Local: