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Buy Local

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Buy local. It’s a concept I’ve been thinking about, and acting upon, a lot lately. It started with the farmer’s market. When I moved to Storrs in 2006, I wanted to find ways to support the community. I joined a local non-profit that is dedicated to building a true downtown—one that has local businesses and is pedestrian-friendly. I also started to visit the local farmer’s market. The first thing that attracted me was the basil. In the summer, it’s cheap, plentiful and so good. I made a couple of batches of pesto and froze leaves to use in recipes later. A neighbor recommended the salad mixes sold by Full Moon Farm. I tried them and thought they were great. Even my vegetable-phobic husband eats them.

During the winter, I found myself missing the farmer’s market as I bought mediocre—and often expensive—fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. I was thrilled when the market resumed last May. I also started getting strawberries from a local patch in June. What wonderful stuff.

I recently read books such as “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole” by Benjamin R. Barber, and “Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses” by Stacy Mitchell. I started rethinking my former career as a mall marketing director. I was always uneasy with the idea that I was helping people consume more than they should, but I only looked at the personal financial consequences—credit card debt. These books made me see the larger negative impact of national chains on a local community—how money you spend in a national chain rarely stays in the community. For example, a locally-owned store is likely to use local suppliers and banks, advertise locally, and contract with local service providers. The store’s revenue stays in the community and supports other local businesses. National chains don’t make much use of local resources. They take advantage of economies of scale and consolidate such activities in a central location. Yes, chains provide local jobs, and that tends to be the biggest headline when they come to a community. It certainly was big when I helped open a new mall in Virginia. But how many jobs are lost because of the new competition? Local competition often gets squeezed out and the other businesses they support feel the impact. It probably doesn’t happen overnight, it may take years. And when it happens so slowly, it’s harder to see, until your favorite local bookstore is gone because you’ve been spending more of your money at Borders.

I also made clear in my mind a phenomenon I witnessed—and was a part of—when I moved to Virginia. When my new mall opened, nearly every store manager was brought in by the parent company from somewhere else in the country. Yes, the mall created new jobs, but the highest-paying jobs went to people (including me) who moved to the community to take them. For the most part, local residents did not get these jobs. I always wondered why, but now I know. National chains want people heading their units who are loyal to their company first, to the community second (if at all). It was the same with my company. While I got involved in the community, it was mostly to grease the political wheels and to network for potential sponsorship opportunities that would provide additional revenue to the mall. Once the grand opening was done, I was left with very little money to support local causes.

Another event that raised my awareness—the Live Earth concerts this past summer. While I watched very little of the actual concerts, I became aware of a concept called “carbon footprint.” I also began to look at the bananas and pineapples in the local supermarket and wondered how much fuel it took to get them to Storrs—which is still a farming community as well as a university town. Wouldn’t it be better to buy the local strawberries down the street? They certainly taste better. And my $5.95 per quart—a little more expensive than those in the supermarket—does support my neighbor Paul and his family. And I pass by the strawberry patch on my way to the supermarket—no additional fuel needed. Plus, I have more confidence in these strawberries because I know where they came from, which leads me to another defining event—the pet food recall last March.

Our cat, Calvin, nearly died due to tainted pet food. Our vet calls him a miracle cat. I started looking at what other food I’m buying that came from China. I buy very little processed food, but even the pine nuts I bought to make pesto came from China. Not that I want to just pick on China, but how much fuel did it cost to ship something here I can find locally? A little research showed I could buy organic pine nuts for about the same price at the local food co-op.

I also noticed a book in the local bookstore called “Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA’s War on a Family Farm” by Linda Faillace. Since I have a budding interest in eating local foods, I read the book. I was fascinated by the story of how one family decided to build, from scratch, a farm that would produce sheep’s milk and cheese. The Faillaces imported their high milk-producing sheep from Europe and got caught up in the mad cow disease hysteria. No matter that they did everything the USDA asked them to and more. As luck would have it, I traveled to Vermont at the same time I was reading this book and had a chance to visit the family’s store and meet their eldest daughter. This book made me resolve to support local family farms as much as possible.

So I’ve been back at the farmer’s market this summer and expanding what I buy. Next year, I want to get a larger freezer and learn how to start preserving food to have during the winter. My next book to read is “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver. It recounts one year that her family ate only food that they produced on their Virginia farm.

I’m probably won’t give up occasional trips to the mall, but I am starting to think about what I buy and make a conscious effort to find a local business first before going to a chain. My husband and I downsized to having just one car last year, which allows me to walk to work every day and keeps me in better physical shape. And while I cannot avoid trips to the supermarket, I am buying more local foods when they are in season and thinking about how I can enjoy them longer into the winter. I’m on a journey that I did not even realize until I started putting these thoughts together on this page. I think of the words of the late John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Attention Shoppers!

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You have just clicked on Million Dollar Wiki's "shopping" page. Is this what you were expecting? Probably not.

When I purchased this page I had two thoughts in mind:

  1. If this site goes well, I'll be able to flip this page and make a nice return on my $100 purchase
  2. If it doesn't, at least I helped a smart, creative UConn student pay off his school loans.

Either way, I'm happy I made this investment.

I purchased "shopping" because I am a former retail marketing director and it's the subject I know most about. I spent several years of my professional life convincing people to part with their money, purchasing items they did not need--but I helped convince them that they did. My retail establishment was a shopping mall and I used to tell people that if the mall fell into a hole tomorrow, the world would hardly notice. I did not say this to diminish the hard work of the thousands of retail employees who worked there. I wanted to make the point that we needed to be very good at what we do and we had to treat our customers very well. Otherwise, they would take their money elsewhere and we'd be out of jobs.

For various reasons, including the nagging voice of my conscience, I left this job two years ago. I am just beginning to reflect on what it is I did and what impact it had on my customers. Here's a story to illustrate:

One of my responsibilities in my shopping mall was supervising the Customer Service Center--the place you go to ask directions, rent a baby stroller, and purchase mall-wide gift cards. This was a busy place, especially during the holiday season. My shopping mall sold A LOT of gift cards. We brought in extra staff to handle the volume of customers and I often worked at the desk myself. I remember several people who came to purchase gift cards who clearly were not regular customers. Two stand out: One women with a fist full of credit cards who made a purchase in the thousands of dollars. Her first credit card was rejected, which is often an embarrassing situation. Not for her. She just kept handing me plastic until one went through and she completed her purchase. The second was a man who had just been paid for the week, cashed his check, and brought it to the mall to purchase hundreds of dollars in gift cards.

Each of these cases, and many others like it, troubled me. I wanted to take these people aside and convince them that a small gift card was enough. They did not need to put themselves into debt or give up an entire week's pay for gift cards. But my job was to generate sales for my stores. My mall was the top seller of gift cards for the entire company, which brought me praise and rewards from the corporate office. I liked the praise, but it troubled me at the same time.

I reasoned that my customers had free will, and personal responsibility. I did not force them to shop at my mall. I did not try to upsell them when they purchased gift cards. But I was part of a larger machine that drives the United States economy and convinces people to spend what they don't have on stuff they don't need. I had to get out.

If you're still reading this--I'm flattered. But you may also be thinking I'm a hypocrite. After all, didn't I just spend $100 on a credit card to buy this page--which I clearly don't need? Absolutely. I am just as vulnerable to the constant message of "you are what you buy" as most people. That frightens me because I also have some understanding of the machine that generates that message. If I can't escape the lure of shopping for fun and entertainment, who can?

I debated for a couple of weeks what to put on this little piece of virtual real estate. My first instinct was to stage it for sale--much like you would a house. I wanted to figure out a way to market it and make it attractive to a potential bidder. But then I began to think about it and realized that I just wasn't that interested. So instead I'm using it as an outlet for that nagging little voice, the one that is just coming to terms with my former retail marketing life and is thinking about how to be a more conscientious consumer. I'm guessing I've killed any serious prospects of flipping my investment, but that's okay.

What next? I'm not sure. I don't know if this is what Graham had in mind when he started this wiki, but it's what I have to offer right now. And if you've read this far, perhaps you'd like to offer a comment or ask a question. Just let me know. Thanks.

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