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Three things have happened recently. Three things of relevance to this post, that is, and technically one of them isn’t recent at all. I’m sure more than three things have happened globally, or even locally for that matter. But I couldn’t exactly start this post with the line ‘1.8 million things have happened recently’. And how do you even define ‘recently’? That changes everything. Crap, this has all gone horribly wrong.
The three things that have happened that are of relevance are:
- Everyone is getting very Christmassy
- The new Sainsbury’s supermarket has just opened in my hometown
- I saw a blog about people buying eBooks on Amazon, reading them, and then returning them within seven days to get a full refund
These things all combined to remind me of the Facebook status I read about this time last year. It was a status about why people should support their local, independent shops. However, it wasn’t a plea, and it certainly wasn’t motivational. I actually thought it was a tad aggressive, in that it followed the tone of ‘If you shop at the big chain store for Christmas presents you’re wrecking the livelihood of a poor, starving independent shop owner. You might as well go and stamp on their face as they try to eat their pitifully small turkey’.
This got me thinking, and over the year the issue of small shops versus big brands continued to bubble away in the back of my mind. As we approach Christmas, this issue becomes even more pertinent.
We are all just looking for value
The thing is, because that Facebook status seemed to imply that we were doing something wrong by shopping at big stores I naturally thought about my defence to the argument. The main reason that we will shop at the big stores is the obvious one – it’s cheaper. I bought Adobe Photoshop Elements a while back from Amazon. Why didn’t I buy from my local technology shop? Because it was £20 more expensive. £20 is a lot of Smarties. (Note: I tend to measure currency in terms of Smarties, just as I measure calorie intake in terms of Kit Kats – e.g. ‘Wow, that slice of cake was 3.5 Kit Kats!’).
As much as sometimes it would be great to shop at local stores anyway, regardless of the higher prices, I expect many of us just can’t afford to. When we can get more for less, it is so wrong that most of us choose to take it?
The plight of the independent shopkeeper
I don’t blame independent retailers for having the higher prices. It’s a matter of logistics, not greed, I know this. Amazon can sell a CD for half the price of a brick and mortar store, because they don’t have the same costs when it comes to overheads (when you’re a small company, it’s a lot harder to afford the expensive accounts who help you avoid paying tax). If independent retailers matched online outlets, or supermarkets, on price they’d very quickly go out of business.
So it’s not the retailer’s fault that there is such a price discrepancy. Are bigger companies being too ruthless? At what point does having a competitor turn into being dominated by a merciless rival?
Or should it be our responsibility as the consumer to pay the higher prices of independent stores to keep them in business?
Smarts or greed?
I expect a lot of us would like to believe that we are savvy customers (incidentally, I like the word ‘savvy’. People aren’t savvy enough. Whilst I’m on the topic, people need to swashbuckle more as well). We often boast to our friends of the great deals we’ve got.
Where the Amazon e-book debate comes into it, is that I would argue the practice of reading a book and then returning for full refund comes under the category of greed, rather than customer savviness. There’s a difference between exploiting the competitive nature of business to find the best deal on a product, and exploiting a loophole in a system to gain something for free.
But at what point does savviness devolve into greed? I would argue that the eBook thing counts as piracy. But who is it okay to rob business from? Going to a store’s competitor is stealing business from them, but if the other store has a cheaper price, as a consumer would you not be foolish to knowingly pay the higher cost?
And what about preowned games? The practice of trading in games is essentially a highly-profitable rental service for the companies involved in doing so (note – this business model doesn’t work with bandages, soup, or firewood). But it means that the games developers are missing out. They only get money from the first sale, but their game could be sold two or three times over. Think of all the Smarties they are owed.
How much responsibility lies with the consumer?
The problem with the trading-in system with games, or returning eBooks for a refund on Amazon, or just shopping in supermarkets that are cheaper than your local grocers, is one of availability. At the end of the day, we do it because we can. As the blog post about the Amazon returns said, the people returning these books aren’t ‘evil’ – they are just ordinary people who have found a way to make their love of reading completely free (If only there was some organisation of buildings that you could go into and come back out again with free books, which you can read and then return without having to pay a penny…).
At what point does giving the customer value become sticking two fingers up at the people who work so hard to create the things they enjoy in the first place?
But with the rest of life, we know there are lots of things we don’t do just because the opportunity is there. Like playing Wink Murder at a funeral. When it comes to money, things naturally get more complicated, because there is a fine line between usefulness and greed. But the problem with business, is fundamentally it is about making money. As consumers, we can’t be expected to treat businesses like they are charities. But is it OK to frame the issue in such callous black and white terms?
Perhaps, in a world where we throw way too much, can’t pay attention for very long, are used to things being transient, and our communities disintegrating, perhaps it is not such a personal sacrifice to buy one book from your local independent bookstore, as opposed to two or three from Amazon for the same price. Perhaps we need to stop thinking about what we are losing by buying a brand-new game rather than the preowned one, and think about what we gain.
Of course it is easy to say, and not so easy to put into practice, but maybe, if just once in a while each of us did this, we’d be making a large investment in the future of our community, our planet, and our intellectual capacity.
And there would be enough Smarties for everyone.
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