By DAVID JOHNSON
RECENTLY ON THIS same media outlet, Coun. Denis Walsh dropped the conversation of buying local as opposed to buying online.
Obviously, all Kamloopians will agree with the basic concept of this, supporting local businesses is critical to the diversity of our community, and providing jobs in these businesses is an important part of the local economy. And, as he points out, a city can be known by its unique approach to the retail market, no question.
If we need fresh food, or even packaged food products, the choice is easy. I like nothing more than to buy my carrots at the farmer’s market. If I need a car stereo installed or the furnace fixed, or my eye glasses replaced, its automatic, I go local.
If products or services are generally available in our local stores, then the option is doable, and quite often the price is competitive, but not always. More on price later.
What Mr. Walsh misses from his perspective as a local business owner, is the reality of two key components of local vs online; availability and price.
A city the size of Kamloops means that many lines of products simply are not carried by independent local businesses, or even local chains or big box stores.
The Kamloops market is just not large enough to sustain boutique or single industry stores, or even for big box stores to carry unique brands or expanded product lines. The volume of demand is just not there to warrant shelving products that don’t move.
In comparison, a market the size of Vancouver allows for a much greater possibility of finding what you want; the potential market there is 2.5 million people. Someone will buy that box on the shelf but, in Kamloops, it is a simple fact that if you are looking for a very specific product, often you just can’t buy it.
Buyers in Kamloops know that they can buy directly from the world market, and online shopping is access to that market. Whether it’s a particular colour, size or capability or if its any angle of product not locally carried, we can still get it.
Example; I’m a computer hardware guy. I literally can not buy most parts I need locally, driving me online. Anyone reading that who understands this particular market knows that buying this stuff online is already difficult enough, and buying it locally is laughably impossible.
Whether its CPUs, Graphics Cards (ya, I know), laptop batteries, decently priced cables, or a range of peripherals or components … you literally can’t buy it in a store here and when you can, it’s much more expensive.
If I could buy it at a store here, and the price was good, I would do just that. Unfortunately, the answer is too often, “Oh … sorry no, we never carry that.” So, I go home and order.
Another more everyday example: Last fall I was looking for a very specific kitchen tool, heavy duty institutional grade stainless steel locking tongs – a box of 12 for myself as well as for small gifts for family members that would appreciate the quality, yet even though our local independent kitchen supply store had them in catalog, but couldn’t bring it in … so online I go. They arrive a week later.
One more relating to availability; Recently we upgraded cars and decided to add high quality seat covers to them. The differences of availability to sizes, styles and colours between locally purchasable, and what we could find online was simply staggering, at half the price.
I even wanted to buy a set of bed frame risers … you know, the wheels on the steel sticks that support a bed, but I needed taller, adjustable ones. They don’t exist here … and this shouldn’t be a niche product.
Shelf space is expensive
How many readers have experienced this dilemma when looking to find something they need? No one directly blames local retailers for this, in the end it’s about market demand and shelf space, they just can’t sell every product line.
The other problem is price.
How often have I seen a product either online or in store, then checked the opposite and found the price to be not just a little better online, but often somewhere between ‘enough of a savings to bother,’ to half the price or cheaper?
And this isn’t a rarity, its commonplace. In these COVID-19 days of belt tightening … price matters more than ever. Providing a profit margin to a local company vs. being able to pay bills? Its an easy decision.
People buying clothes for themselves or family routinely will find the piece they want at the size they need at a local store, just to put it back, and go home to order it online.
The amount of savings far outweighs the tug of the need to support local stores. Anyone who has done this, sleeps perfectly well, Mr. Walsh, as that’s dollars that support their families.
For a relevant example: We needed effective, medical grade COVID-19 masks. At our local Kipp Mallory, they sell medical grade 3-ply disposable masks for $35 for 50. That’s $70 for 100. On Amazon I found the exact same brand of masks, in the same box for $18 for 100. That’s about 25 per cent the price.
I have the masks I and my family need, and I have over $50 left in my pocket to support my family. Why would I not buy that?
Far too often local stores just can’t compete. The obvious cost is the loss of that purchasing dollar for local business, and the jobs they support … but what are we to do? We are not just sheep, auto-choosing the easy way, but knowledgeable shoppers trying desperately to spread our meager earnings a little further.
We could blame Jeff Bezos … or we could blame ourselves
We can talk about the proliferation of online shopping opportunities and their use when compared to previous generations, we could even chastise the retail online giants of the world for this catapult into online consumerism debauchery, but we can only do that if we rejected the notion that they only fill a desired demand.
Or we could debate the feeding of the capitalistic tendency to ‘have more’ or ‘better’ … but being the owner of a video store Mr. Walsh kinda places you directly in the scope of this first world consumerism market, as a provider. Your store in essence needs the expendable dollar market to even exist.
Videos are pretty high up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.
Soo … there is no easy answer and no one can forecast the retail market 50 years from now, but today it seems clear; even though emotive yearnings to protect our local small businesses is a very reasonable argument, just who is going to stand up to all these market forces on the global scale and demand otherwise? If no one does, then its just noise.
I’m going to cherish my farmers market carrot but I will still get the stuff I need online.
I can’t afford not to.
David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.