Today I want to talk about these buy local programs. It’s a chance to talk about the difference between good and bad economics, and feel good in reality.
What do I mean by that? First of all: Yes, there are some things that can be good about buy local programs, but they mostly feel good. They’re not sustainable. I’ll get to all of these, but there are some good things and some bad things, and there are some ways to make some of it work, but not if it’s done the wrong way. I
First of all, let’s start out with a basic premise. Let’s say the program is out there saying you should buy locally. Well, somebody’s telling you to buy locally because it is good, as compared to say, buy it on Amazon, have it delivered to your home, etc., and save $10 or save x%. When is it good, and when is it bad? First of all, just the idea of buying locally, while it sounds good, can you imagine walking down the street and you’re passing by a shop, and you really like the guy and you like his shop, so you walk in and say: “Here’s a $5 bill. I just really like your shop.” You walk out again, and go on. Isn’t that the same as buying local for the wrong reason?
Before I go on to some of the other parts: Yes, there can be some very good reasons, and one of them happens to be in the food area. Some things with locally-grown food… Forget the idea of just supporting the farmers for the sake of supporting the farmers, but think of the idea of what you’re really getting, because it’s the value, the perceived value of what you receive; fresh, locally-grown goods. Those tomatoes that are either locally grown or hydroponically grown. Yes, they can be grown all winter; they are in northwest and southern British Columbia. They’re grown in large green houses, hydroponically, so you’re getting something that is just about ripe as it pulled from the vine. I grow tomatoes and have grown tomatoes in my dinette, hydroponically. They grow like crazy and they taste great, so that makes sense. It might not make sense the way I do it, but it makes sense that it can be done commercially, and it is. Getting fresh things like that, what is the difference? They have more value because they taste better, they’re fresher. There is a true and perceived value difference.
On the other side of it, where I live right now, the Redmond farmers market has things, but the prices are actually higher by the “locally-grown farmers” than they are in a grocery store, and in many cases, the local farmers, because of where we are in Washington, are supplying the grocery store, too. In essence, you’re just paying more for the idea of supporting the farmer. That not only doesn’t make good sense when that happens, but it doesn’t really feel like the farmer is reciprocating in that buy local program of treating you right. At the same time, those same farmers, I can go down to Kent, Washington, and they’re selling them for about a quarter of the price that they sell them at the Redmond farmers market. Now, they’re not worth driving that far, but it’s just kind of interesting. The local farmer, which is just a few miles away is selling them based on the price as much as he can get out of whichever group he gets them, and depending on what neighborhood you live.
What about the local stores and shops? If you’re walking into a local store or shop, there should be some perceived or added value for you to go there. Keep in mind that if there isn’t something there, what are you doing? You’re really just contributing. That sounds good and sounds nice, and they have lots of different reasons that they say you should do it. Some of it is that if you’re buying locally, there’s more likelihood that they’re going to turn around (than a big chain store), that they’re going to spend their money that they receive, locally, so in a sense it does stimulate the economy.
But it’s not sustainable in the long term. Why? Because as the customer walking down the street, you have to get people that are basically contributing; not making a consumer judgment of what they’re buying. Yes, you could say part of what they’re buying is the fact that this is going to be passed on in some other way. That sounds nice, but what they’re actually buying is a good. If that exact same good can be bought cheaper someplace else, that’s not going to be a long-term sustainable decision. There’s not going to be sufficient people, when it comes down to their dollar, to be able to do that.
What they can do is supply something a little different. Do they service differently? Do they help the customer differently or better? Do they show you how to use things? What I’m saying is there’s added value. In a sense, the differential between what you’re paying is made up from the difference of some value you’re getting. Maybe show how to use something, maybe show how to use it better, or show some purposes for some things that you’ve never thought of before now. It has to be something that has a value to you beyond just getting the product in a box on your doorstep.
Yes, it sounds nice to say you’re supporting the local economy, that you’re supporting the character of the local traditions of the community. It really boils down to: If you want something that is a long-term, sustainable service, product, and business – you need something that makes the difference in the value. The best thing you can do is help people. If you’re in one of these chapters of the buy local programs or whatever, help them understand how to provide that additional value, or help them understand that it’s necessary. If somebody is just emphasizing the fact that we’re all going to emphasize the buy local, they’re not motivated sufficiently to get that additional value to the customer, and they’ll always be just on the edge of survival until they’re not and die.
Yes, you want the local health, you want the local environment, but the key thing is it has to be something different. Local food systems, there’s a lot of connection between diners. Chefs try to buy locally. Why? For what I just said before; the food service operations, etc., it gives you better, more delicious, fresher food. Some of the touchy feel-good stuff; reduces oil-dependent transportation costs, protects local landscapes, and things of that sort all sound good, and they may really be good if there was some way to actually make sure that the motivation was there. Quite frankly, most people are going to have to make that decision, and they will make that decision based on the price if they’re getting the same value.
Keep in mind that if you’re not maximizing the value to the customer, you’re not going to have that long-term sustainable service, product, or business. You’re not going to find anybody walking down the street and taking $5 out of their pocket, walking into the store and saying: “Here, I just wanted to show you my appreciation for you being in my neighborhood.” Just like that makes no sense, neither does a person avoiding buying it and having it delivered to their doorstep if it’s the exact same product, and service, and customer service.
Keep in mind that you’re establishing that extra level of service in a variety of different ways. There are still hardware stores that are out there that survive, and survive well. Why? By educating and actually servicing the customer, and showing people how to use, what to use, and when to use certain tools, and how to be more efficient in what they have to do or take care of. The same could be done for kitchen stores. Anything that has something that you’re going to use and you want to know better how to use it. It could also be done even in certain electronic stores, etc. It’s the same kind of thing. It has to be something that there’s not such a substantial difference in price that the person doesn’t value that difference in customer service and the how-to.