Greg Palmer’s IRL Shopping Stimulus About to Hit Brooklyn

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Former Keystone Politics editor Greg Palmer is on to a pretty good idea, resolving in 2014 to stop shopping on Amazon and start doing most of his shopping at local physical stores, as a way to support his neighborhood retail economy.

In a similar but opposite scheme, my buddy Randy Hunt is the Creative Director at Etsy (he’s so fancy he even just dropped a book about Product Design for the Web), and a little while ago he and his fiancee pledged to stop buying stuff in real life and start buying all their clothes and knick knacks on Etsy to support the merchant community.

These are awesome ideas. But of course it must be said that they only really work for you if you have the money to pay the higher prices that come with shopping at bespoke independent stores rather than massive retailers who enjoy an economy of scale.

The stuff on Amazon really is cheaper, as is the stuff at Target and the dread Wal-mart. It’s good that those stores exist because super low prices mean higher real incomes for poor people. Are they good in an overall societal sense? I don’t think anybody should glibly say that poor people should have to pay higher prices for basic consumer goods like socks and bed sheets and reading glasses without taking a few minutes to really think through the implications of that. I’m willing to believe it’s true, but don’t have a firm opinion. Maybe the environmental costs really aren’t worth it (all those Big Box parking lots!) or maybe the human and labor costs abroad really are too horrendous even if they’re often a large improvement on the agricultural alternatives.

But whether they net out to a societal good or not, there’s no denying that cheap prices for consumer goods are good for lower and middle-income Americans in an absolute sense, and those people should probably keep shopping at the places they can best afford while we’re pushing our politicians to enact more progressive environmental and labor market regulations.

People who can afford to shop at independent retailers, whether physical storefronts or online, should absolutely do so. If you like living in a neighborhood with lots of nice independent stores around and you don’t like chains, then throwing some coin to folks so they can keep doing what they do is exactly what it takes to keep the independent neighborhood retail economy thriving. Also, greater residential housing density.

This entry was posted in Economy.

10 Responses to Greg Palmer’s IRL Shopping Stimulus About to Hit Brooklyn

  1. Girondin says:

    The issue with Wal-Mart, in my opinion, is more that it has somehow attained a quasi-monopoly status in terms of the service it provides (low-cost goods) to the community. Whether it had government help outside of tax breaks I’m not sure, but Wal-Mart’s unique position at the time of economic catastrophe has resulted in an arguably insurmountable market situation. That makes it a monster in the eyes of many angry people.

  2. Girondin says:

    And if eschewing conscience and shopping at Wal-Mart is allowed, Amazon shouldn’t be questioned at all. It not only saves poor people the cost of more expensive goods, but the cost of gas (and time) it would take to get to (and walk around) Wal-Mart.

  3. Jon Geeting says:

    I’m not sure how much of a monopoly I think Wal-mart is with Amazon and Target in the picture, but generally agree with your concerns. I personally try to avoid shopping at Wal-mart for other reasons, namely how abusive they are with staff lock-ins and other general patterns of inhumane treatment of employees.

    • Girondin says:

      I feel like the moral argument for shopping “mom and pop” is already known, and felt, but the feasibility of alternatives is ultimately doubted. Even more than the actual sacrifice involved in paring down spending habits for the common good, the question marks surrounding how to do the thing are frightening and block any attempts by the lower-income strata. If some local economists could look at the existing independent market, jive it with lower-income cost-of-living models, and work out some rudimentary formulas for how a Wal-Mart/Amazon-free subsistence might be able to work, and roundabout what to expect from such an endeavor, we might see some actual substantial street-level movement on this issue. I think most everyone hears the facts, and would like to take action, but has no idea how to do that and survive.

  4. Greg Palmer says:

    I’ll probably write a followup post about this, but it’s a good argument I happen to disagree with.

    First, yes, let’s be realistic. I’m (relatively) economically privileged and can shop wherever I darn well please for my basic necessities. I honestly just won’t notice whether I’m spending 30% or sometimes 100% more on something than I would at a Walmart.

    But frankly, if it’s only people like me who eschew price concerns and shop in the neighborhood, the local economy is doomed. What I’d like to make an argument for, but am not educated enough on the subject to do, is that people in the top ~40% of incomes should become less price sensitive and less focused on this idea of immediacy and convenience.

    Big argument, I know. Losing argument, probably. But absolutely necessary if we want to save ourselves from the Idiocracy of the future, where drone-delivery and minimum wage jobs dominate.

    When I shop at the corner store, I’m helping an entrepreneur who is supporting a family, trying to send his kids to college, reinvesting in expansion or the neighborhood itself. Every dollar I spend becomes part of a virtuous cycle.

  5. Jon Geeting says:

    Strongly agree with the proposed remedy, but I don’t really think city neighborhoods are going to get screwed by the End of Retail hypothesis. Suburban interchange developments and strip malls are in for some bleak times, but in urban areas many of the storefronts are occupied by non-tradable services that can’t be outsourced and won’t really be hurt by online delivery.

    Restaurants and bars are an obvious example. Doctors offices and some other professional services like lawyers and other specialists. Gyms and yoga studios, tailors and drycleaners and laundromats, florists, hardware stores. Hardware probably gets hurt by online retail, but if you check out something like the West Philly Tool Library, where people borrow tools instead of buy them, there’s an argument to be made that faster more convenient delivery could actually create a market for some more rental businesses like that. There’s also stuff that we’ll always just want to do in person – test out bikes at the bike shop rather than order online, try on clothes in person rather than mess with delivery.

    What happens if you go to like, J Crew and try on something in the store, don’t get it, and then decide to buy it later online? Does that hurt the individual store? Some of these might remain open kind of like how Apple just uses its retail storefronts as showrooms and repair shops, but does most of its business online. Some clothing stores don’t have an online presence though because they’re too small, and that’s where we get back into your argument about the importance of shopping locally.

  6. Michael Noda says:

    There’s a longform post I have brewing about the relationship of technology and physical scale. To summarize:

    Before 1940, the best scale for retail was the traditional storefront, because customers came in on foot. There were bigger retail operations, most notably the high street department stores, but they mostly existed in a separate ecosystem and didn’t compete directly with the neighborhood commercial corridors.

    By 1990, thanks to the ubiquity of the car, a big box store could use economies of scale (and dumping huge infrastructure costs onto state and local governments) to seriously outcompete the traditional storefront enterprises. And for the subsequent two decades, the big boxes spent a lot of time in the Suburban Ponzi Scheme cycle, heading out to the development frontier for the biggest plots of land to put the biggest stores and the biggest parking lots, financed by the biggest public subsidies, to attract customers who were either willing to drive crazy distances (or follow the stores in moving out to the boonies) to chase down a rarer item that’s uneconomic to keep in inventory in a smaller location, or for shaving a few pennies off every purchase.

    Now, of course, we live in an era where customer transportation is not seen as costless by the consumers themselves, which is terrible news for all those big boxes on the periphery, because now they’re getting beat at their own game by Amazon Prime (and really the internet in general). Since comparing prices on the internet is fast and brutal, Amazon’s prices are held down to the minimum, which is good for Amazon because Jeff Bezos Doesn’t Care About Profits. If you were shopping at Walmart 15 years ago to protect your real income, then you should be shopping on Amazon today for the same reason, modulo things which you really can’t wait two days for, or things you need fresh like milk and produce. But with Amazon killing Borders and giving Walmart fits, it’s now made the world safe to be a small urban storefront again, because they can compete on convenience, and in those sectors where Amazon can’t and the delivery services (Peapod, FreshDirect, and ShopRite) haven’t yet.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Michael, you should write more short blog posts exactly like this. This is perfect. Start an argument, don’t finish it, and let people swarm in with the but, but, but comments.

      • Michael Noda says:

        You know, there’s a reason I refer to myself as the World’s Worst Blogger. I lack the temperament to shut up and get out of my own way.

        Actually, if you want, I wouldn’t mind cleaning this up a bit for This Old City. Interested?

  7. Jon Geeting says:

    Haha no it’s totally hard to stop writing, especially when you know what the objections are going to be. Most of the time it’s just better to cut a single than a full album of points though. I’d definitely be willing to run something like this at TOC, esp if you can find a way to make it a bit more SEPA specific. Not totally necessary though.