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Where You Buy Is As Important As What You Buy

Photo used with permission of ASTRA

Have you already started your holiday shopping? If you’re like most moms, you’ll search blogs and sites like Babble for information for ideas about “what to buy” for the holidays. I’ve spent hours researching the “top toys” and “best educational products” or discussing the merits of purchasing organic produce or free-range chicken with my friends on Twitter and Facebook.

Isn’t it time for moms to put as much thought into our choices about “where” we buy products as we do on “what” we buy?  You’ll note that I said “where we buy” rather than “where we shop.” According to a 2012 survey by Empathica, 55% of smartphone owners used their phones in stores to check prices and comparison shop. It’s increasingly common for consumers to use local businesses as showrooms before purchasing online from stores such as Amazon according to AMIBA (American Independent Business Alliance).

The economy is tough, and many families are suffering. As moms, we look to save where we can by clipping coupons and shopping sales.  I understand how important it is to get the best price, but  treating local businesses like showrooms and then buying online to avoid paying sales tax is wrong. There…I said it. It is wrong, and it is not harmless behavior.

Like most of you, I shop online frequently and care a lot about getting the best price. But I am a reformed smartphone app user. If I’m going to visit a local store to check out a product, I am not going to visit an online retailer to purchase the same item in order to save a few dollars on taxes or the product. Doing so is unethical and harms my local community.

My experience serving on a local school board turned me into a strong advocate for small businesses in my community.  Supporting local stores provides real benefits to your community. Local businesses create jobs and help fund your town’s essential services such as public schools, police and fire departments through their tax dollars.  I saw firsthand how entire communities are hurt when local businesses close. These local businesses provide after-school jobs to our teens and sponsor their soccer leagues. They donate food and products to our PTA fundraisers. Even if you think these contributions are insignificant, you should care about how local businesses impact education.

When one local business closes, it probably doesn’t impact you personally. When many local businesses close, the tax dollars from these businesses are no longer available to support government services in your community. I used to purchase products on Amazon to save a few dollars rather than shopping locally until my time on the School Board Finance Committee opened my eyes. As I struggled with the other school directors to balance the budget, I saw the impact of declining tax revenue from commercial properties on the bottom line. Class sizes increase. Special programs like foreign language in the elementary schools were cut. There are other structural issues impacting education in America, but where you shop matters.

In many ways, the lack of support for local businesses reminds me of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” a concept I studied in econ and History classes that explains how individuals acting out of self-interest can destroy a common resource even if that is contrary to their long-term interests. We know the importance of local businesses, but we still are tempted to buy online to avoid sales taxes or to shave a few dollars off the price.  We justify our behavior and hope that others do the right thing. We often think that one person doesn’t make a difference, and we figure that other consumers who are “better off” will patronize the local businesses. But one person does make a difference. Unless we each individually take a stand in support of small businesses, we will continue to see local stores close in a tough economy.

Shopping local is good for your town, but it’s also good for you as a consumer. Whether I’m buying toys or new eyeglasses, I seek out small independent retailers in my neighborhood. These small business owners provide excellent customer service like fast repairs for broken glasses or complimentary gift wrap for toys when I’m late to a birthday party. I also trust small business owners to help me find the best toys, beautiful products for my home or other special products that I would never discover in a big box store. And I know many manufacturers who owe their success to a local store who gave them a chance to sell their wares until they were able to secure a larger distribution deal.

Saturday, November 10th is the 3rd Annual Neighborhood Toy Store Day, sponsored by ASTRA (the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association.) Many stores will be having special events in their local store and you can visit to show your support of the local economy and businesses. Please visit yourneighborhoodtoystore.org for details about the events planned and for information about the 2012 Best Toys for Kids selected by over 500 independent toy store owners.

If you aren’t able to participate in Neighborhood Toy Store Day, please spread the word that shopping local matters to your community. You can follow ASTRA on Twitter @thewoohoofactor or Facebook.com/thewoohoofactor to learn more.

Read more of Debbie Bookstaber’s writing at Mamanista.com and Bloganthropy.org. Don’t miss a post! Follow Debbie on Twitter and Facebook.

Disclosure: I was a part of the team that helped ASTRA create Neighborhood Toy Store Day in 2010, and I have worked with them as a consultant since 2009. However, my opinions are not influenced by my work with ASTRA. I’ve donated numerous hours to shop local campaigns after seeing the importance of local business while serving on the School Board and Park & Recreation Boards in my township. 

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