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An Irrational Decision to Buy Local

tom_honig_sWe’re well into the Christmas shopping season (note to self: is it proper to refer to Christmas?) and it’s a key time for local merchants (answer to self: it is Christmas, dammit, so that’s what we should call it).

Every year since I’ve been in Santa Cruz, there’s been some self-imposed pressure to buy gifts in Santa Cruz – even if there might be slightly better prices or more selection elsewhere.

For years, there was a practical rationale for me – as an editor at the local daily, and I of course was interested in supporting our advertisers. It was a lot easier to interview someone for a story if they knew that I was a supporting member of the community. Plus, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

Yes, I acknowledge that there were times I’d sneak out of town over to, say, Tower Records in San Jose just to get that extra selection. Of course, Tower Records is long gone—itself a victim of changing times and a changing economy. So where do I go to pick up that much-desired CD of the Norman Luboff Choir singing sea chanties? It then comes down to Borders – not the progressive Santa Cruz choice—or maybe Streetlight Records – an out-of-town store that’s at least kind of local (there are only two stores – the one in San Francisco has been shuttered).

And now, of course, there’s the online option. So if I’m looking for a book like “The Wit and Wisdom of Newt Gingrich” I could keyboard in Amazon.com and buy it in obscurity—and not pay taxes—or risk public embarrassment by walking into Bookshop Santa Cruz and asking for a copy. (True story: one time I purchased the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated at Bookshop Santa Cruz and had to explain myself to a nearby customer—none other than Ann Simonton, the former model who now concentrates on fighting against such sexist publications.)

The question here is—what’s the appropriate strategy when it comes to holiday shopping? It’s clear for local merchants—buy local, don’t go out of town, don’t go online.

Supporters of the buy local movement quote economic studies showing that buying from a chain store results in only about a third of the dollars staying in the county. Shopping local more than doubles that. Online? Nothing stays here, except for the money that stays in your pocket that you eventually spend at the grocery store.

But it would be best if they kept these studies under wraps, because the more studies you look at, the more it’s clear that buying local isn’t a viable long-term strategy. The entire global marketplace is working against it. Economist Russell Roberts of George Mason University has devoted years of study to the buy local movement (and to globalization)—and he argues that “buy local” only makes sense when it comes to a small number of purchases. “When you purchase one item or category of items, such as food, locally, you don’t think about what the full cost would be if you did that more aggressively across a wider range of products,” he said, in a recent interview with Seven Days website in Vermont.

Ultimately, he argues, the power of lower costs overwhelms everything else – and any attempt to change that basic economic tenet is doomed to fail.

But daily life in Santa Cruz isn’t about macroeconomics. “Buy local” does make one feel better. And in a small town like Santa Cruz, buoying all the local connections—buying from a neighbor or from people you know – just seems appropriate at Christmastime.

Take the earlier example about bookstores. There’s simply nothing better than taking a lunch-hour to browse through the store, figuring out what books you’ll read next – or what books you’d like to read if you only had the time. Or how about the old-time hardware stores—now almost completely a thing of the past—where you could not only buy a hammer, but also get some tips on how to use it from someone that you actually knew.

Even the economist, Roberts, agrees: “The emotional, nonmonetary appeal of ‘buy local’ is very clear. It’s nice to buy things from people you know, and often that interaction of shopping and trading with people you know enhances the quality of life.”

So let’s put aside the economic studies— even the ones putatively endorsing “buy local” and do your last-minute shopping with people that are plying their trade here in town.
Contact Tom Honig at [email protected]

 

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