There are so many reasons to love the Internet. We never have to wonder long about anything – we just Google it. It helps us communicate more effectively with family, friends, colleagues and customers. We can learn a lot, often for free, without setting foot inside a classroom. And when it’s time to shop, we can find awesome prices and selection without ever leaving the house.
As big a fan as I am of most Internet-related things (wow – there’s a surprise), there are benefits to shopping local beyond just feeling like a good person. I don’t think anyone should consistently settle for inferior products or services in the name of altruism because, as in the story about the emperor’s new clothes, others will ultimately see a business for what it is – the Chamber of Commerce’s shop local campaign be damned. Better to experience pain sooner and have the opportunity to correct it and succeed, I believe.
PR campaign or not, folks tend to spend their money where it feels best for them – myself included. Sometimes price is more important; other times it might be quality, service, selection or time. Over the last few months, I’ve had some local shopping experiences that made me realize there were areas where the Internet loses its advantage. It’s normal to get excited about shiny new things but, predictably, reality comes back into play and we realize the shiny thing actually isn’t the panacea we believed. I believed. Anyway – here’s what I realized.
5 benefits of shopping local businesses (even if you love the Internet)
1. Get it now
When you buy Zoku ice pop molds from a local store, you can be home making boozy pops before they’d have left the warehouse if you’d bought from Amazon.com. If Desitin is the only thing that keeps your six-month-old from developing a fierce case of diaper rash, and you’re almost out, drugstore.com won’t cut it. Whether you immediately need the item you’re buying or you just really want it now, the Internet hasn’t yet found a successful way to compete with local businesses in the instant gratification category. They’re trying, though.
2. Check out the actual item before buying
Make sure the color or dimensions will really work for you. Inspect an individual item to be sure it’s not flawed or broken. Try on clothing and know that it looks good on you instead of just a perfectly proportioned website store model. Check the picture quality of a flat screen you’re considering by watching the display model. Even if you’re buying something that’s pretty much a commodity, there can be variations you’d only spot by buying in person.
3. No additional shipping charges
If you can get an easy ordering process, a good price, free shipping, you don’t mind waiting, and your item arrives in good condition, you’ve had an ideal Internet shopping experience. That ideal doesn’t always happen, and “free” shipping is ultimately built in to the cost of the item. You pay with either higher prices or by buying enough to get you to a minimum qualifying purchase amount. When you shop locally, the item you buy has been shipped in bulk to the store and the built-in costs are lower than the one-off shipping that gets it to your house. There is, unfortunately, sales tax in most places. But it’s showing up more often in online stores, too.
4. No unattended packages outside your home
My office is currently in my home, so I usually grab packages pretty quickly after they’re left. Even though I don’t live in what would be considered a bad neighborhood, criminals have taken advantage here as they do anywhere they see opportunity. In addition to packages themselves being attractive to thieves, a house with packages outside tells thieves that no one is watching. When I buy something from a local store I don’t have to worry about it being stolen from my doorstep.
5. Easier returns and exchanges
The only thing I dislike more about shopping than returning something to a store is returning it to an online seller. As easy as some online businesses make returns, it’s still quicker and easier to stick the thing in the car and return or exchange it the next time I’m out running errands. No calling or logging on to get approval to return the item, then repacking and shipping it. When you buy locally, going back to the seller with the item in hand is usually the end of the story. Return and exchange policies vary, of course, but I keep receipts and go back fairly promptly if I see something’s not going to work well.
On a semi-altruistic note…
One person choosing a local business over a giant online retailer won’t really make or break a business. But if you want a variety of stores and services in your town you – and lots of your neighbors – must understand that each business needs a strong customer base to stay open. Mom & Pop shops and other independent businesses don’t have numerous locations to help spread costs; chains will only tolerate underperforming locations to a point.
If you want that housewares store to stay in your town, go there and spend money. If you like the quaint little hardware store, go there and spend money. If you love looking at everything in that funky little gift shop, stop looking and spend money. Every dollar you spend is a vote for what you want.