Editorial: Local vs. savings, a tough choice for shoppers

Published on November 29, 2016

Nancy Goodman arranges a dishware set available at China Cupboard and Gifts. The downtown retail store is closing its doors after 27 years in business but will still offer some online service.

Put your money where your mouth is — but back to that in a minute.

It was a telling moment last week, during a time when all the hype was about the imported-from-the-U.S. Black Friday sales event. In the midst of the lead-up to Christmas, three businesses in downtown St. John's announced they are closing by the end of the year. Included was Templeton's, a family-owned hardware and supply store that has operated for 150 years.

The closings brought the usual tempest: when a long-time business closes, the media can inevitably find scores of people who feel the closures will be a loss. What's not so easy to find, though, is customers to keep the doors open.

And it's far from a Newfoundland-only issue.

Sift through the Internet and you can easily find stories like China Cupboard and Gifts closing in New Glasgow, N.S. after 27 years, or Sydney Video closing in Sydney, N.S.

And it's not just small operations, either: Sears pulled out of New Glasgow, N.S. this fall, and Fabricville in Charlottetown, P.E.I. announced it was closing down by the end of November.

It's a story that's gone on for years; the marketplace has undergone a huge upheaval with moves both to big-box megastores and to online catalogue shopping. Costs for retailers are rising, while the pool of available customers is shrinking or, in the case of the video business, downright disappearing.

Ask customers why they make those choices, and it's all about choice, price, and convenience.

Supporting a local economy through the purchase of local goods may be an altruistic goal and one that people flock to when closings are announced, but when it comes up against fiscal pragmatism, the winner is clear.

And it's not smaller local stores themselves.

Buying local products can have strong benefits for a community: it keeps people in that community at work and local taxes being paid. Vibrant small retailers beget other small retailers, the same way that, as retailers leave an area, their neighbours suffer more strain and fewer selling opportunities.

And sometimes, it's a little bit more difficult: the selection might not be as broad, the parking might be tougher, and it might even cost you more. The dollars you spend, though, do circulate through local economy, and won't go off to some distant head office to finance a management structure that probably couldn't find your hometown on a map.

It is a bit of a conundrum: people both decry the closing of local businesses, and yet probably can't remember the last time they actually supported those same businesses by coming through the door and buying something.

You can't buy things exclusively at one kind of business, and then complain about other businesses closing.

You get what you pay for, not only in products, but also in choices.