Help me vanquish a sassy person.
November 25, 2012 8:27 AM   Subscribe

How do I counter this argument? Me: Please do your shopping at independent, local businesses. The mall chain stores do not need your money. Opponent: Do the hundreds of people who work in the mall, or in the businesses that surround the mall and depend on mall traffic, need your money?

Now, how do I counter that? That reply seems bogus to me, but I can't put my finger on the specific "why." Give me some brain ammunition, please.
I put this in Grab Bag because it didn't seem a tidy fit for Shopping, Work & Money, or Philosophy.
posted by BostonTerrier to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Employees at national chains keep fewer of the dollars you spend there and often also receive fewer benefits and have less control over working conditions and hours. The executive and ownership jobs in these companies are not available to people in your local communities, but are consolidated at usually distant corporate headquarters. And most importantly to me, the money you spend at local establishments not only pays the staff, but recirculates many more times in your own community, and is more likely to be donated to local causes and needs.

Look at the argument this way: all things being equal, both kinds of employees need your spending to earn their money. But when you spend locally, your dollars actually create more value in your community than if you spend at the chains. So if paying one person vs. the next really is six of one and a half dozen of the other, but you get additional value with each dollar spent locally, then why would you not shop locally?

On these matters I really recommend reading the book Big Box Swindle by Stacy Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. They publish many reports based on their data analysis in the Big Box Tool Kit, such as 5 Myths About Big Box Retail, and important to your question, key studies on the economic mpact of Local Businesses vs. Chains. Much more there to read too.
posted by Miko at 8:37 AM on November 25, 2012 [37 favorites]

The businesses in and around the mall are generally chain stores. The amount of your dollar that a local business re-circulates in your local economy is much, much higher than the amount re-circulated by a chain store. Looks like about 55% vs. 15%.
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 8:39 AM on November 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's not bogus. The difference between "independent, local businesses" and "mall chain stores" is mostly arbitrary and big chains are on balance better for workers and the environment (to name two common concerns of those who typically support the local retail movement).

Like a lot of things this essentially boils down to cultural preference, but just because your preference feels good doesn't mean it's objectively correct or anything.
posted by downing street memo at 8:39 AM on November 25, 2012 [20 favorites]

I don't know if this is really an answer to your question, but this is one of the reasons that I see charity/kickstarter/do-gooder guilt as sort of sideways to the issue of supporting small businesses. Where do you draw the line at who "needs" your money the most? What makes this indie boutique more deserving than the Banana Republic in the mall where the assistant manager's mom has cancer and she helps pay the medical bills with her paycheck?

I say this as someone who definitely supports independent and local businesses and prefers that way of shopping to malls and chain stores and big boxes. I just don't know that the sentiment is logical.

I think a better argument on your part would be that one should support them because they're better for the local economy and make your town a better place to live.

OK, trying to answer your question the way you wanted, I would counter your opponent by saying that, in a small business, profits directly benefit the owner, and employees stand to see a larger share of that profit simply by being specific individuals in a smaller organization. Whereas in the chain stores, employees are faceless cogs who get what they get, regardless of how the business is doing. That dollar you spend at Target goes mostly to the Target corporation, while the employees continue to grind on at minimum wage no matter how many people shop there. There's at least a chance that Bill's Mom & Pop Emporium will kick folks a bonus or upgrade the health plan or throw a killer holiday party to thank everyone for their hard work.
posted by Sara C. at 8:41 AM on November 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

In addition, one of the reasons for the increase in local recirculation is that because ownership is local, the owner is more likely to satisfy business-related needs locally too - accountancy, banking, law, construction, and so on. So buying locally contributes to a greater diversity of trades and helps retain a professional class in the community.

There were some great, thorough answers in this previous question, "Does buying local really help the community?" Be sure to peruse that too.
posted by Miko at 8:48 AM on November 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

Here is a non answer but my answer--I make the decision based on my best understanding of how well the employees are compensated and their benefits/training and opportunities--not on whether they are a national chain or local merchant. I would much rather buy from Starbucks, COSTCO and some national grocery chains as they pay relatively competitive wages, offer fringe benefits and support employee mobility.. i see no real value in supporting a local merchant if the employees are poorly paid, have no benefits/healthcare, are poorly managed and the business is under capitalized and unable to provide value and quality. There are local owned services I do actively patronize because either I know the owner or I know that the owners are the principal employees.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:59 AM on November 25, 2012 [19 favorites]

Also, in a mythical world where more people bought local and fewer people shopped at the mall, all those mall employees wouldn't suddenly be jobless forever- they'd be working at the local businesses, because that's where the demand for labor would be.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:04 AM on November 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

how do I counter that?

Well it's tricky because at some level this comes down to whatever your personal values system is. At some level our current system isn't sustainable (having all the Wal-mart employees on food stamps is problematic on a number of level and while it's patronizing to try to "save" them from terrible jobs I think it's easier to point to the fact that this is actually a system that isn't helping anyone except the people at the top) and so my feeling is that something will have to give. Given that, and this is a premise that people certainly may disagree with, what do you think needs to change. I believe that whatever system you have will always be broken. However picking what set of brokenness you are okay with for your personal values system is something that is a useful philosophical exercise.

So, a few choice points

- Supporting local business OWNERS versus supporting only local workers. You are not, personally, going to be able to put Target out of business. But you can shop at the local department store and put more money into the pockets of peopel who are creating jobs in your community AND employing people there.
- Keeping your money in the community. There are many studies about where the money goes when you spend it locally versus when you spend it at chains. I prefer to keep my money locally. I have a decent job and the luxury of being able to make that decision because I think if fewer people who could afford to weren't so parsimonious, we could all have more and live in a more just world. I do not begrudge people shopping at Wal-Mart who can not afford to shop elsewhere (or argue with them about whether that is the case) but I can choose and many of my friends can choose and I think it's worthwhile to have a discussion about that.
- I believe in supporting better workplaces, not just better businesses. So places that give their employees healthcare and sane hours and schedules, and who support benefits for domestic partnerships and are vocally against discrimination and who join the local Rtary or Chamber of Commerce. Note: this is not just charitable contributions. many big box stores give generously to their communities which is fine, but that's all money that's been skimmed off of a system that doesn't pay people minimum wage. Not okay with me.

So, this isn't an argument that I like to have with people because there are many people whose personal values point them in different directions and while I don't agree with that, I'm not going to wrestle with them over holidaytime about it. At the same time, I am a very vocal supporter of our local merchants and business owners and try to, uh, be the change I want to see in my community and set a good example. So know when to say when with your discussions with people, but there are reasonable points that support the side you are trying to support.
posted by jessamyn at 9:14 AM on November 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

The profits from the locally owned businesses stay in your community.

The profits from the corporately owned chains go away and don't come back.
posted by zadcat at 9:15 AM on November 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think that you're getting stuck because you're trying to boil something really complicated down into a simple, snappy argument about why your values are right. Your friend's response sounds like a knee-jerk, "Oh yeah? Well what about [vaguely snotty question]?" kind of reaction to something you said that may have come across rather strident (it may have sounded like, "The way I shop is better than the way you shop"). It can be exceptionally easy to hit a nerve when you're talking about personal choices, values, and money in a blanket way.

Rather than having an argument with your sassy friend, it might be helpful to explain your values--not why you think everyone should shop locally, but rather why you choose to shop locally:
  • Why do you think it's important to shop locally?
  • Why do you accept the limitations of shopping locally (fewer product choices, etc.)--what makes it worth it to you?
  • What about local businesses that don't offer benefits or mistreat their employees: do you think it's important to find out about that kind of thing?
  • How did you develop this value?
  • How does it fit into your priorities--are there things you could buy locally at great cost, but that you instead buy more cheaply from national chains, or is shopping locally the thing that takes top priority in your values?
  • For that matter, how does it fit into your budget?
I've heard the arguments for shopping locally, and I've changed some of my shopping habits as a result. The minute someone starts expounding on how important it is for everyone to shop local, I want to run away screaming, drive to Target, and buy a big container of ear plugs. A more nuanced conversation about the advantages and challenges of trying to support local businesses, and I want to continue the conversation at my local, independently owned coffee shop.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:39 AM on November 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

I don't think there's an answer because neither the OP nor the other person are entirely wrong nor entirely right. The other posters have given good reasons for both. Avoid shopping at big-box-stores that are terrible to employees (Walmart?) or have very bad environmental records, and avoid driving to a big box store if there is a local store that serves the same needs because that is bad for the environment, too. But if an ethically-reasonable big store is across the street, shop away.
posted by sarahkeebs at 9:57 AM on November 25, 2012

My uneducated non-answer is that I spend my money at Target or wherever because the sweaters are less expensive than the sweaters at Local Corner Boutiquery. Then I take the money I saved and donate it to a local nonprofit. That's the thing that always drove me nuts about the shop local types in my area - before Target moved in, my options for buying a trash can were to do it at the yuppie housewares store where the trash can is $100 and stainless steel or ... order it from Target online. But that's just me.
posted by kat518 at 10:02 AM on November 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, you can split the difference by getting gift certificates for meals, services or theater at local institutions. Everyone's gotta eat, a meal out is a nice gift and that's something I can't get cheaper online or at a big box store (okay, yes, you can but only sort of).
posted by kat518 at 10:06 AM on November 25, 2012

This argument against shopping at chain stores (i.e., that shopping at independent stores "keeps more money in the community") breaks down when you realize that these stores are based all over the country. While it's true that me shopping at Target sends more money to Minnesota, everybody in the country is shopping at Costco and bringing money to my community. For that matter, everybody in the world is buying Microsoft and Boeing products and bringing money to my community. I'll willingly trade the former for the latter.

Now if everyone bought entirely locally, those national chain stores would not exist. You would essentially ban economies of scale. Everyone would pay higher prices for everything. How would that be beneficial? By paying lower prices for, say, a pair of blue jeans, I also keep more money in my community, in fact I keep it in my pocket. I kinda like that.
posted by kindall at 10:07 AM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

The profits from the corporately owned chains go away and don't come back.

This isn't actually true. Not in any sense that makes it a good argument anyway.

Most chain stores are publicly-traded entities. Their profits go to shareholders. Who are those shareholders? Ultimately, the general public. True, large chunks of many major corporations are owned by other corporations--banks and insurance companies in particular--but those in turn are publicly-traded. Eventually, you can't find any corporation that isn't ultimately owned by people.

So when you spend your money at the local Mom 'n Pop, not only are you likely paying way too much for your stuff, you're giving money to them, and pretty much them only. Sure, they'll go and spend their money later, but let's keep that aside for the moment. When you spend your money at a big box store, you're giving money to the store's shareholders. Who are... basically just you and me. Pensioners in particular. You know who got hit the hardest by BP's financial difficulties related to the Gulf oil spill? British pensioners. But the fact of the matter is that anyone who wants to can get a piece of the profits of these corporations for the price of buying stock in said corporation.

Compare that to a small business, which are mostly closely-held. The only way to get a piece of that action is to either buy out the business or start your own. Either way, you're giving money to the corporate owners. It's just a question of whether you like few owners or many owners.

Now, which one seems more democratic?

And let's consider then the "money stays local" argument. I don't think it does, not in any meaningful way. The small business owner is spending his money, sure, but so are shareholders. But there are more shareholders, and they're scattered throughout the country, so it's hard to say with any kind of certainty that a proportional amount of those corporate profits aren't winding right back in your community in the form of dividends. And if your response is "Well that's all going to rich people," who exactly do you think business owners are? Why should I privilege one set of rich persons over another? And how the hell do I know that given local business's labor practices are any better or worse than the big box down the street? For all I know, the only reason said business is profitable is because they're in bed with the local government and getting all kind of illegal tax breaks.

Small is not good. Big is not bad. Not inherently anyway. And the kinds of choices you're talking about are so complicated and interdependent that I'm pretty comfortable saying that they don't really have a moral valence. If we want to talk about the morality of personal finance, we need to talk about thrift, gluttony, and self-indulgence, not the marginal benefits of extremely tenuous economic connections.
posted by valkyryn at 10:26 AM on November 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

I like to shop locally at my owner-operated neighbourhood shops when I can. Do they pay the help more than minimum wage? I have no idea. Do they offer benefits? I have no idea, but it would not surprise me if they did not. How could they afford it? My neighbours also work at the local big boxes. I have to shop there too for the reasons mentioned above by kat518. So, by design and by force, I end up shopping as locally as possible and running into as many neighbours as possible along the way. You know, I just do my best. There is no single right answer here.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:34 AM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Folks maybe help the OP answer their question and don't just argue this point for the sake of arguing it if you're not helping them?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:35 AM on November 25, 2012

Me: Please do your shopping at independent, local businesses. The mall chain stores do not need your money.

You can change the retort you are getting-- if not people's minds-- by changing the way you are putting this. People are just answering you based on the last few words you said, because that's the easiest way to argue. Plus, I doubt whether telling people to shop at a certain place because those employees/owners need the money is ever going to be that successful anyway. Everyone needs money; and people buy where it makes the most sense for them.
posted by BibiRose at 10:58 AM on November 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

OP's argument is self-sabotaging, because it's based on an assertion of "need" for the money. Most people want money, so as you've seen a person can simply reply past it with a different group of people who can be said to "need" the money being spent at retail.

If you want to make your point as stated that shopping local is better, your reason is going to have to involve something that the other side doesn't have, like local recirculation of profits.
posted by rhizome at 11:28 AM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think one argument that could potentially be made is that supporting small business helps promote the community as a tourist destination by increasing the "uniqueness" of the community. Towns that are all strip malls and chains don't tend to attract many tourists. A healthy tourism industry has many benefits: the hotels make money (and generate tax revenue) and employ lots of people; tourists visit landmarks and parks, which generates money for the parks departments and keeps our open spaces, well, open; more patrons of music, theater and other arts venues, which helps create a culturally vibrant community. All of these things also makes the community a larger draw for relocating individuals and families, who will in turn be spending lots of money in the community.
posted by imalaowai at 11:41 AM on November 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

My personal reason for wanting more independent small businesses in the world is mindshare and resilience, socially more than just financially.

The U.S. was founded by a bunch of small business owners. Small business owners are more able to think for themselves yet still need positive, constructive ties to the community so they tend to be lss sociopathic than big companies. People working at BigCo experience pressure to think a certain way and thus to behave a certain way. Thus too many people working at BigCo tends to make individuals less adaptable in the face of changing macroeconomic conditions, which helps promote problem number two (below).

When conditions in the world change, it is the behemoths that die. When dinosaurs underwent mass extinction, it was the tiny creatures which survived, evolved, and repopulated the world. I don't think this is a good argument for being actively against the big chains. I am not actively against them. I just think we need good balance and should be concerned if there are too few small businesses.

(Though, personally, I am not keen on advocating that consumers should "shop local". I think a better approach is to support local businesses by helping them become more competitive. If this were my axe to grind, that would be my angle.)
posted by Michele in California at 12:47 PM on November 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

One thought is that smaller businesses are less able to distort the democratic process with political contributions and lobbying to buy themselves special treatment from government. The distortion the big co's introduce may be directly harmful to your area (eg if they lobby for lax environmental or safety regulations).

Another thought is that smaller businesses are typically run by an individual or family, rather than by the abstract idea of maximizing shareholder value. A smaller business can choose to do things for moral or lifestyle-friendliness or community reasons, which are less likely to move a giant corporation that's beholden to its shareholders' short-term profits. (Though of course, some small business owners act badly too).

A further thought, which may or may not apply in your area, is that some big box stores get big tax breaks from the town, to lure them to build in that town. So the big box store may be paying less into local tax coffers than the small business.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:58 PM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Watch The Money Fix:
You can stream it on their website. Explains the flow of money, and why/how local currencies work.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:40 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey OP, you'll find some good ammunition in the comments on this article:
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:47 PM on November 25, 2012
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:47 PM on November 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just for the sake of mentioning it, the derivation of the term "Black Friday" is erroneous in that article. It was not coined to signify being "in the black," it was coined by retail workers to characterize the dread of working that day.
posted by Miko at 5:51 PM on November 25, 2012

In Australia the mall owners squeeze ridiculously extortionate rent out of the tenants, which squashes the life out of any store that tries to be, do, or sell anything that isn't squarely vanilla mainstream.

In terms of value, mall shopping is OK. For diversity, quality & individuality of products & services it's a race to the bottom.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:12 PM on November 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Me: Please do your shopping at independent, local businesses. The mall chain stores do not need your money.

Maybe you're framing your argument too strongly and directly. It's not always about being right. Some people just can't admit their wrong, while others don't see themselves as wrong and just like to debate a point. Some people do not like mixing politics into their day to day lives, while others just respond better to pragmatic reasons.

I would suggest a different approach, something more positive. Maybe encourage people to start small. At the very least go browse in a locally owned shop. Or start out with a small purchase. If it helps, you can offer to go with them and make it a social occasion. If it's that important to shop locally, surely you can spend half an hour with friends to do so. Convincing a some people to do a small purchase might be easier than convincing one to do a big purchase.

Also, talk about the benefits of shopping locally. The quality of the product, the building of a relationship with an owner, or maybe the opportunity to haggle if it's at a more "swap meet" location. Surely there are more reasons to shop local beyond cold hard economics?
posted by FJT at 6:59 AM on November 26, 2012

All of the people working in all of the stores near you, regardless of who owns them, need your money. All the shop assistants live nearby and spend their money nearby, and all of them care about your locality to one degree or another.

The difference is in where the owners and upper management live. If the owners and upper management are local, they spend their money locally, they have a vested interest in your community, and they are relatively accessible. This is not likely to be true of a chain store with owners and upper management living a thousand miles away and worried about pleasing more than your little community. This also holds true for private versus public ownership: if the profits are disbursed among many shareholders rather than received by a local private owner, you are much less likely to keep the profits in your neighborhood. A rich local owner will spend a lot of money locally.
posted by pracowity at 7:12 AM on November 26, 2012

I think the problem is that your argument is facile. Not every local business is good for the community, not every mall store is bad.

I would rather eat in local restaurants because the quality of the food is better than at some chain dump like Applebees. On the other hand, when you want a Big Mac, nothing else will do. That's just the way it is.

If you want, think about when Wal-Mart was a dime store in Rogers, Arkansas. Now, what prevented any other regional dime store from doing what Sam Walton did? Complaisance. When they were the only game in town, people HAD to shop there. The NERVE of Wal-Mart coming in to sell cheap goods, cheaply and running me out of business.

In some places having access to cheap goods is the difference between getting the kids shoes that fit as they grow or having to cut out the front of the shoe so they don't pinch, because a new pair is too expensive.

If local stores offered the goods people wanted at reasonable prices, then there's no way they'd be put out of business. Aren't there things you just pay more for, no matter what? What you're suggesting is that we should patronize someone's store to support them, even if their goods aren't what we want, aren't at a price we determine to be fair and aren't offering some extra service to make it worth my while to shop there. WHY?

If you know of a particular local shop you want to endorse, because you feel that the goods are special and the prices fair, by all means Yelp away. But if you’re shopping local only because the store owner is local, without any other consideration, well, it’s rather sheep-like, isn’t it? What if you found out that the local store owner was being supported by a Physician spouse and it was a vanity thing. A baby clothes store, or a clothing boutique. What if it was just a big-old-tax shelter? Is THAT necessarily a good thing?

Shop where you want, it’s nothing to me, but I don’t know that your argument is well thought out or relevant to many of us. If you have the discretionary funds to pay more for the exact same thing, good on you, but I need to make my budget stretch so I’m going to do what makes sense for me.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:52 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

What if you found out that the local store owner was being supported by a Physician spouse and it was a vanity thing

One great thing about shopping locally is having this kind of information. There are businesses I patronize specifically because of the owner's views, other local activities, tastes, relationship to my social world, or personality. And there are businesses I avoid for similar reasons. I love having that level of familiarity and impact on a business. I can't possibly know who or what I'm supporting with a national chain!
posted by Miko at 9:01 PM on November 26, 2012

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