Local vs. online and big-box retailers

Wouldn’t you hate to live in an area that felt more like a strip mall and less like a neighborhood?

Quynh Nguyen

I remember my first semester in college, when I foolishly bought all my books from the bookstore and felt the burn in my wallet. I wised up and started buying my books online, disgusted at the markup on used books. Nowadays, I buy my books from the bookstore, keep the receipt, compare prices online and buy the cheaper books online. When the online books come in, I return the textbooks to the bookstore. Does that make me a jerk? Yeah. I am abusing a return policy, but then again, they should charge less for their books. Or should they?

In a battle between two bulls, it’s the calf’s leg that gets broken. In commerce, the two bulls are big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy versus online businesses, and the small businesses are caught in between. Eventually small businesses have to find a new business model or die, all while keeping abreast of rent, taxes, wages and other costs of operation.

Remember Know Name Records in Dinkytown? They didn’t make it. Their neighbor, CD Warehouse closed on March 12 and reopened on March 26. What happened? Who was responsible? Why are local small businesses dying and being replaced with big name national stores?

When I asked Bob Chelberg, co-owner of CD Warehouse, he cited piracy, rising costs and unfair pricing tactics from big box stores. Illegal downloads account for a majority of the loss of sales.

Chelberg wonders, “At what point do you realize you’re breaking the law and hurting people? These kids think that it’s hurting executives when it’s hurting local business. In the end, it will hurt the consumer because they’re not going to be able to find products that they’re looking for when they’ve killed the local business that supplied them.”

One can argue that stores like CD Warehouse need to change their business model to accommodate for the fact that people go for the lowest price available, but I’d have to side with Chelberg on how downloading is theft, and that theft is eating at his business. In an avalanche, no snowflake feels responsible, but at some point the consumer needs to know his or her impact on society.

For every online download or transaction that could have taken place locally, local businesses suffer. Not because their wares or services are of less quality, but because the consumer is making choices to go for the lowest price. Eventually those choices will affect the makeup of the very neighborhoods we live in. Imagine Dinkytown losing its dinky neighborhood charm, replaced by “brand name” national chains like GameStop, Panda Express or Barnes & Noble. Why, it would just feel like downtown Minneapolis, Stadium Village or some parts of Coffman Union. Wouldn’t you hate to live in an area that felt more like a strip mall and less like a neighborhood?

I should know, I lived in California for 20 years and watched as local businesses were replaced by these cancerous big-box stores. In a profound, intangible way the neighborhood aesthetic is lost, and all that is left are giant parking lots, perpetual lighting and the stink that your town has sold out. Let’s not forget summer job prospects and how much it sucks to work as a wage slave to a ginormous chain store that doesn’t care about you.

There’s this assumption that the businesses in our neighborhoods will be there forever and that shopping elsewhere will not hurt them. The fact is, to maintain the neighborhoods we desire, we have to nurture the businesses, schools and community that make them that way. I know that, as transient college students, “neighborhood” might not have the same meaning to you as those who are permanent residents, but I am sure you care about area safety, aesthetic and economic viability when you choose a place to live. Getting by cheaply cheapens the neighborhood we live in.

Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]