‘Cheaper, easier, faster’, those words have bombarded and wooed us into ‘deals’ for as long as anyone has had anything to sell. Personal consumption, as a percentage of GDP, sat at 58% in 1967 and has continued to climb every year since until hitting a high of nearly 70% in 2011. As citizens, we are now referred to as consumers no matter the context. Seventy Six million boomers have been molding the way we think about buying, selling and owning goods for the better part of half a century.
As the generation who “essentially created the idea of pop culture and fed its symbiotic relationship with mass marketing and consumerism, they are accustomed to their buying power and are now embracing changes,” according to mrpopculture.com. The advantages, price and convenience, seem to be leading Baby Boomers to drop their shopkeepers in exchange for the convenience and the price. A deal is a deal right? But how are we assessing value? Amazon just announced staggering profits and our appetite for mall shopping doesn’t appear to be returning. But as Boomers age, loyalties falter and conveniences pull at their lives, they are buying on line more – even while 40% of Millennials prefer to shop locally.
Convenience is King
Americans, more than any other culture (I’d wager) are convenience obsessed. We want fast cars, fast food and fast deals. On line is in, and commercial vacancies are up, and where once there were service jobs, now there are chat applications with 60 minute long waits. Let’s face it; the digital world of shopping is re-shaping our culture. Tech innovation, with the ability to reach scalable global solutions, is compelling, but what are the longer-term impacts on culture and community? Are we obsessed with deals to the exclusion of assessing the overall value of the purchases we make?
A study by Civic Economics quantifies the local advantage of four major activities: labor, profit, procurement and charity by comparing online sales of hardware and paint products to sales made in retail hardware stores locally and how shopping impacts communities. Sales through local hardware stores have almost seven times greater (676%) local impact than sales through Amazon, according to the study. If individuals trade longer-term community impact for purchasing convenience devoid of personality, the future of knowing your neighbor is in peril.
I shop at Amazon, we all do. It’s a great company, and so are many other on line retailers. But I’m thinking about the cobbler who couldn’t hang on, the nursery that lost out to developers and Pop’s Hardware who had to sell to Ace and then Ace went under. The big temptation of anonymous ordering at midnight is changing the way we think and consume. Anyone under thirty years old can’t imagine a time when you called an agent to book your travel plans as on line travel booking has obliterated that industry. So that’s business you say. Well, yes it is, but where is the soul of business? Maybe as consumers we need to be responsible for tending to it.
It’s About Value
Saving a hundred dollars booking your own flight on line may be a convenient deal with value. It costs you some time and effort, but in exchange you feel reasonably certain that you got a fair price on a ticket at the day and time you wanted. That sounds like value, but where do we stop? What is the value of local professional help? You probably wouldn’t represent yourself in court or order a forty thousand dollar diamond on line. So why are we shortchanging ourselves and our community in the service of a deal?
Every interaction with a clerk, gardener, Realtor or teacher is a chance to impart our values to the people with whom we share life. As we reduce each transaction to a deal we can make, devoid of the appreciation of the complexity of what it took to produce, who is selling it to us and how it arrives, we divorce ourselves from a connected experience. Just the simple act of buying goods locally impacts a long line of jobs, income and taxes produced.
When we shop in a brick and mortar store, we have an interaction with the community: A chance to influence the way we impact others, and allow others to impact our worlds. As we dive deeper and deeper into the on-line mentality, we also deny ourselves an important aspect of life – interaction. One by one each loss results in a disconnected community and people in isolation. When we take a painting to a local framer, there is a connection to the other, the one who provides. We are losing these connected opportunities rapidly as all sorts of well-healed conglomerates offer on line deals that a small businessperson can’t compete with. When we make price the priority, we are limiting chances for individuals to compete in independent shops. They can’t buy at scale. But when we pay a local framer, artist or waitress, their income stays where they live, eat and sleep.
As Americans living in rich times, we have a lot of buying power, and that means real power. Every purchase is a choice and tells a story about our values. When we buy Green products, support local businesses, frequent shops and remember shopkeepers’ names we are building a community, a future, and our own connected lives. When we choose to prioritize convenience over shopping locally, we need to ask how that aligns to our values. We need to examine and see if our choice is robbing the community of both opportunity and revenue.
I’m not a Millennial, and yet I’d like to take a few notes from their tribe. “Millennials have a strong sense of community and like to feel connected,” says Chelsea Segal, CEO of Targetwise. They’ll select a store down the street over a large corporation or chain. Have we forsaken asking a friend for advice in exchange for reading anonymous reviews? I encourage you, next time you stop by the bakery for bread or the repair shop for an oil change, to notice the beauty of a local moment, the people who spend their days there, waiting to offer service. We each make choices, and I’ll still buy on line, and I do find it nourishing to choose community when I can.