September 5, 2016

The High Price of Low Prices

The high cost of low priceThe city in which I attended graduate school was a great college town. It was big enough that it was rarely necessary to travel to the city but small enough so as never to feel overwhelming. Best of all, it had a fantastic downtown area, the type we have lost in many U.S. cities. There were several wonderful restaurants and bars with outdoor seating and a number of small but interesting shops.

Not surprisingly, this downtown area suffered from the same problem that has led to the loss of many of these areas from so many towns. There wasn't much that served as a draw to bring residents to the downtown area. Like many towns, most of the shopping was on the other side of town. The same was true for most of the new building of any sort. It was a good bet that any new business that came to town was going to be as far away from this downtown area as could be while still being in the same town. For most of us, the downtown area was something one showed off to out-of-town guests and where one might go for a meal on the weekend. That was about it.

When I first arrived, there was one big exception: a fantastic locally owned bookstore. It was small, but the people who worked there were great. I made a point to visit it whenever I went downtown, and I usually ended up buying something. Their selection was not great, their prices were high, and it took them forever to special order the books I had them order. But when it came to bookstores, they were really the only option. And besides, I felt like they added value to the community and wanted to support them whenever I could.

Within a year, a massive new Barnes & Noble opened on the other side of town. Their selection was fantastic, their prices were lower, and their location could not have been much more convenient. It was about the same distance from where I lived at the time than the downtown store, but it was in the part of town I had to go to for almost any other errand. I tried to resist as long as I could. I remember browsing there and then driving all the way across town to the local store to have them special order the books I had just looked out even though they charged considerably more.

This practice didn't last long. My ex-wife persuaded me that it was stupid to pay that much more per book, put all the additional miles on the car, and waste the fuel to drive between the stores just to support the local one. I continued to visit the local store when I was downtown, but this seemed to happen less and less often. And when I was there, I was less likely to buy something since the poor selection made browsing difficult. Unable to compete with Barnes & Noble, they closed the year before I moved away.

It is no secret that this is why we have so damn many Wal-Marts across the U.S. We want a large selection and good prices. It is damn hard to give that up just to support local businesses on principle. Where I live currently, there are no local bookstores. There are a couple large chain bookstores, and both of them are awful in just about every way I can imagine. As a result, I don't feel bad about buying almost all of my books from these days. I guess I'm "part of the problem."

We have virtually no choice in grocery stores because Wal-Mart has put nearly everyone else out of business and developers are reluctant to come in where they are already established. There is a small grocery store not too far from where I live, and I make a point of going there from time to time. Unfortunately, this means paying roughly $1 more for almost every item than what Wal-Mart charges. If I am buying more than a few items, this becomes a challenge to justify. 

I realize that we have done this to ourselves and that I have even played my part, but this realization doesn't make me any less sad at the outcome. We have converted much of our country into strip malls and massive chain stores because we could not resist the lure of selection and low prices. Some of us didn't realize the real price we were paying until it was too late. And yes, I fear that it may now be too late.