Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Public opinion

I am currently in a public management class that has been quite eye opening. The question arose the other day (I may have been the person to bring it up), if 'Mom and Pop shops' and walkable communities are seen as more attractive, why don't we have policies that encourage small shops and walkable communities? In fact, cities generally give big incentives to the box stores (like free land or paying for infrastructure needs of the business) in order to come in when it is knows that they will likely destroy local businesses.

The answer was simple and true. The reason is because that is what you want. Well maybe not you personally, but I think many of us are guilty. We voted for the big box stores and against the little guy. Right, I know they didn't hold a formal vote, but that is still the way the masses vote. They vote with their dollar.

Hypothetically you want to buy a new computer. Also pretend that you know as little about computers as I do, but you hate it when yours crashes and you want to be sure you get something good. Here are your options. You can go to a big box store like Costco or Wal-mart and get absolutely no customer service, but a pretty good deal (or at least you can hope). You can go to Best Buy or another of the big box electronics places and get marginally better service and pay a little more. Or you can go to the local guy on the corner who knows everything about computers and he will sit down with you for 30 minutes or more in order to talk you through exactly what you need and the best computer to meet your needs, but you will pay a premium for the computer. Oh and there are the online deals that are a really good deal, but you're never quite sure what you'll get or if it will work.

Which would you choose? Or would you go talk to the guy on the corner, have him tell you which is the best computer for your needs and then order it online or get it from the box store at a really good price? I know small business owners who experience that regularly and it's destroying their business. Do people realize that you are taking money out of that guys pocket as you talk to him and 'waste' his time and then send your money to a big box store or other entity that offers no customer service?

Lets look at this in the context of the original problem. The 'Mom and Pop shop' now has to charge higher prices in order to put food on the table and the city gets less tax revenue from them. Eventually the 'Mom and Pop shop' goes out of business so the city can put in something that will make more money and the computer expert can get a job elsewhere so he can support his family. The city will get more money this way and the store owner will likely be able to find a reasonable job that pays pretty well.

Where does it leave us, the consumers? We end up with a limited number of people who can actually guide us on our computer buying decisions and no option but to go online or to a big box store where nobody knows what they are talking about. But I thought we wanted walkable communities and local stores with local owners. We did, but we were more worried about ourselves than our community so we outsource their jobs. Who does the outsourcing, the US or us, the consumer?

My wife and I have been talking about buying a new digital camera and here are my requirements. It has to meet my wife's demands (even though I don't know what those are). And I want to pay full price from a local guy to help keep him in business and help feed his family. Am I going to pay too much? I suppose it depends on how you look at it. My community is worth it to me.

No comments: