Holiday shopping with a purpose

Friday, November 25, 2022

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I don’t have a great deal of regard for people who insist that their vote doesn’t matter. Voter participation isn’t mandatory in our system, but good people vote their convictions and if enough other people share those convictions, changes are made. History is made. The future is made, and every single vote counts.

Let’s push that thought a bit further. What if I suggested that each one of your discretionary dollars is also a vote? As we kick off the official start of the holiday shopping season, you will make numerous spending decisions. Do you think of those decisions as a vote? Why do you buy what you buy? Why do you buy where you buy? Does your spending reflect your ideals, values and sense of community?

A great deal of lip service is paid to our business community during occasional “shop local” campaigns, but I’m not always confident that people fully appreciate the impact of supporting local trade. Most of us are aware, on some level, that our purchases can positively impact our local economy and create local jobs, but our discretionary spending also provides us with an opportunity to make much larger statements.

We may or may not save a few dollars by contributing to our trade deficit with a country that threatens both our economy and our military. We might even save enough to overlook the fact that the items are possibly manufactured by child labor in a place that suppresses information and imprisons ethnic minorities. In doing so we may even know, somewhere in the recesses of our minds, that we are sending the markup on those products to be reinvested in streets and schools and swimming pools somewhere else, like Bentonville, Arkansas. Does that stuff really matter when we’re saving a few bucks? How does that balance with the convenience of us only having to make one stop on the way home, rather than two?

The marketers for those companies work hard to convince us that they save money for us on so many items, so consistently that we don’t even have to comparison-shop anymore. Their business model is centered around attracting less-informed consumers who won’t divide dollars by ounces, because they are told they don’t need to. Conveniently, those marketers never mention the costs to our community, our national security or for that matter, human decency. Have you given serious thought to the costs of doing business with such entities?

When considering the expense of not doing business locally, here are a few names to ponder: Alco, JC Penney, DeGroff’s, Carmichael’s, Country Corner, Top Office Products, Hinky Dinky, Barnett’s Do It Center, Trustworthy Hardware, Hershberger Music, and so many more. Those were all here and doing business when I moved to McCook in 1994. Yes, a few of those fell victim to changing times and what economists call “creative destruction,” but enough have fallen to the box-store economy that our choices as consumers are now dramatically limited. People who have lived here longer can add to that list exponentially, but as we get lost in the nostalgia, let’s think about the ones that might still be here if we had shopped just a bit differently.

Those are the costs, but what are the benefits? The easy answer is that dollars spent locally remain in the community, then circulate and stimulate other businesses within the community. Most people understand as much without delving into the academics of “original” dollars and multipliers. A few more also appreciate how smaller businesses impact the local job market. What many forget is that independent retailers often carry better quality merchandise, more interesting product lines, and those that are less likely to have been produced by third-world child labor.

Another aspect to be considered is local service. It’s very difficult for poorly-paid, hastily trained, powerless corporate box store drones to rival the level of personal customer service offered by independent, small business owners. I have always enjoyed taunting my urban friends with stories of the amazing personal service I have received that can only happen in a small town, and only with small businesses.

Just last week, Jerry from Blake’s service stopped by my house to help me with a few stubborn lug nuts. Blake’s is a traditional service station that will check your oil and the air in your tires. That level of service alone is a rarity in this century, but they don’t run a road service operation. They don’t make house calls. I just happened to run into Jerry at our Nebraska-owned grocery store and mentioned that a particular tire on a long-parked vehicle was giving me trouble. A couple of days later, on a cold, windy evening, he was knocking on my door, telling me that he had fixed the problem. Would that have happened with a corporate gas station?

I know it’s fast and convenient to pump self-service gas, grab a processed breakfast sandwich and an oversized soda in one place. Convenience has value, but if you can take the time to stop at Blake’s for your gas, you may find that you have a good friend when you really need one. Follow that by picking up a breakfast burrito from Bueno’s (they are as tasty as they are huge) or a Delaware from Sehnert’s and you will be a happier, healthier person.

What’s most important to me is that shopping locally helps retain McCook’s unique, charming, downtown character. The bricks offer a great shopping experience, but without Knowlen and Yates, the Fox Theater, Sehnert’s, and all of the community-minded local business owners like Jerry, they’re just bricks.

In many ways, our local businesses define us. They give the community its local flavor. They reflect us. They are us. As we start spending our holiday dollars and throughout the year, let’s remember to purchase gifts thoughtfully, and give with the pride and prestige of shopping locally.

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