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.