It ain't easy being a SLOB!

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, August 10 -- Around here, lots of cars bear bumper stickers reading, "Support Locally Owned Businesses," or SLOB for short. In a small city like Flagstaff, one of the hottest socio-political issues is the struggle of small local businesses against national or out-of-town "big box" retailers (like Wal-Mart) and Web-based retailers (like Local activists are up in arms over the rise of new commercial buildings and the consumer trend toward buying products from companies not headquartered in Flagstaff. They've gone so far as to don sandwich signs and picket the Barnes & Noble bookstore that opened a few months ago.

I'm all in favor of supporting local businesses, all other things being equal. But all other things are not always equal. Case in point: This afternoon, I went out in search of a book called Designing With JavaScript, which had been recommended by an instructor at a Web seminar Meg and I attended yesterday. Instead of sitting here at my desk and buying the book from, as I might have been inclined to do, I decided I'd Support Locally Owned Businesses and see if I could find the book at one of the retailers here in town. I asked Meg which store would be most likely to have it, and set out in search of Designing With JavaScript.

Local businesses are simply going to have to find ways to compete with the big guys -- otherwise, they're toast.

I got to the bookstore and spent several minutes wandering around, looking for their computer-books section. Couldn't find it. For some reason, retail bookstores are among the most poorly organized establishments on the face of the Earth -- unlike a library, where you've got a computerized card catalog that tells you where everything is, in a store, you have to figure out (a) how they're likely to have categorized the book you want, and (b) where they've hidden that particular category.

We're on Internet time, guys!

After walking around for a few minutes without finding the computer book section, much less Designing With JavaScript, I accosted one of the hired hands and asked him if they had the book. He ascertained that they didn't but said he could order it. I asked how long it would take to arrive. Five to ten business days, he informed me. [Postscript: The book ended up arriving at the bookstore on August 31 -- a full three weeks, or 15 business days, after I ordered it.]

I'm sorry, folks, but that's not going to cut it anymore. I can order almost any book under the sun from (or any other Web bookstore), and they'll have it in my mailbox in two or three days. When I got home and logged in, I found Designing With JavaScript immediately; no wandering around, no need to burn gas, no need to badger the help -- and there were no fewer than 137 reader-posted reviews on-line, to help me decide whether I actually wanted the book or not!

I mention this not because it's news to anyone who shops on-line, but because it should be a wake-up call to those who do business the old-fashioned way. Supporting Locally Owned Businesses is all well and good -- but why should I do that, when someone else is getting me the same product faster and probably cheaper?

Do local businesses provide good jobs for locals? No. They provide minimum-wage service jobs and generate a certain amount of tax revenue -- but so does Wal-Mart.

For more than 40 years, my Uncle Nick owned and operated an independent drugstore in Newburyport, Massachusetts, eventually turning the store over to his son, my cousin Andy. He was successful for a long time -- but eventually, his business fell victim to the rise of big chain pharmacies. As Andy told me, "I'd have someone come into the store, pick up a bottle of shampoo and say, `Hey, CVS [a large drugstore chain] is selling this for $2.59. How come you're charging me $4.00?'" Buying shampoo a case or two at a time, Andy had to pay much more than CVS, who was buying thousands of cases at a time. So he lost a lot of business to the big guys -- and eventually had to sell out to them. Some 12-13 years ago, he made a decision to sell the store to CVS and go to work for their local outlet as a staff pharmacist.

It's unfortunate that there are no (or almost no) independent drugstores anymore, and that local bookstores are falling by the wayside in the face of competition from the big stores. But you can't expect consumers to pay more for less and take longer to get it, just out of an altruistic desire to help local businesses. LOBs are simply going to have to find ways to compete -- otherwise, they're toast. How they do it is their problem to work out -- not ours. This may be unfortunate, but that's how a market economy works.

You want fries with that?

Just to play devil's advocate, why should we Support Locally Owned Businesses? Do they provide good jobs for locals? No. They provide a lot of entry-level service jobs and generate a certain amount of sales-tax revenue -- but so do the big-box retailers. In the case of web retailers, OK -- here, the SLOBs have a leg to stand on, because Web purchases aren't (usually) subject to sales taxes, so the money you pay goes right out of the state. And they don't provide any local jobs. But again, who needs a McJob? The retail industry doesn't provide a significant number of good (i.e., professional) jobs anyway.

(I think the city of Flagstaff should stop trying to attract more retailers -- and, while we're at it, businesses that cater primarily to tourists -- and concentrate on courting real industries, like technology. But that's another column.)

So how are local businesses going to compete? Well, one way is by providing superior customer service. When I lived in the Boston area, I used to frequent a small record store owned and operated by a couple who made it their practice to stock (or at least be ready and willing to order) every record in the Schwann catalog, to let the customer listen to a CD before buying, and to offer helpful advice and recommendations. Despite the arrival of several big record stores in the immediate area, their little shop survived (last I knew, they were still in business, having resumed operations some months after a fire severely damaged their shop).

Damned if you do; damned if you don't

This afternoon, when I walked into what I thought was the best bookstore in Flagstaff and found that not only did they not have the book I wanted, but that it was going to take five to ten business days to get it, I was faced with a dilemma. Do I Support Locally Owned Businesses in spite of the inconvenience, or do I do what a rational consumer would do: buy on-line?

As it turned out, I decided to order the book from the retailer -- I then went home, logged in, and ordered another of the JavaScript books recommended by my instructor. I thus made a half-hearted attempt to SLOB, while proceeding with my plan to get hold of a good JavaScript book as quickly as possible. But loyalty and altruism are not going to get the job done, in the long run. If local businesses can't provide the same price, availability, and service that we can get somewhere else, they're going to be looking for another line of work.

Copyright © 2000 John J. Kafalas

Feedback?  Send in a letter to the editor, and I'll post it on-line!

Return to the home page