News+Opinion » Guest Columnist

Why shop local? Because every dollar you spend shapes Charleston

"Alexa: Order Anywhere, USA"

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I get it. Online shopping is convenient, the choices are vast and shipping is so quick that your order is practically at your door five minutes after you click “Purchase.” Consumers can choose from millions of options (actually 1.3 billion, according to Google) for a new pair of jeans. Often, you can skirt that pesky state sales tax that brick and mortar retailers are required to collect. And you never have to talk to anyone! With the pending Amazon.com acquisition of Whole Foods, the stage is set to order your organic kale alongside your jeans, dog food, new set of arm chairs, glow-in-the-dark fidget spinner, and Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote Streaming Media Player without ever leaving your house.

But, at what cost?

Online shopping isn’t going anywhere and nostalgia for pre-internet shopping days is a fool’s errand. I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. And I agree — it’s damn convenient. But these technological advances result in everyday choices that lead to seismic industry shifts with real economic consequences, and the result is a local brick-and-mortar retail industry on life support. In addition to shifts to online shopping, retailers now face sky-rocketing real estate costs (Charleston retail lease rates increased by 26 percent from 2015 to 2016), infrastructure problems, and worker shortages. Much like manufacturing after companies moved production to cheaper markets overseas, brick-and-mortar retail is in decline and must evolve with the times.

At Lowcountry Local First, we focus on what we’re for, rather than what we’re against. That said, a few facts will help to frame what we as citizens (notice I didn’t use “consumers”) are voting for every time we shop online with large corporations for goods and services that are also offered by our homegrown local-independent businesses.

When you choose that Giant-Internet-Corporation over Mom-and-Pop, you’re voting FOR a Main Street full of ‘Closing Sale’ signs. “Thanks for 10 great years, Charleston! Would have loved to see you when you were doing your holiday shopping, back-to-school shopping, or weekly errands. Just a visit here and there, I’m not asking much.”

When you choose that Giant-Internet-Corporation over Mom-and-Pop, you’re voting FOR sending your dollars to pay dividends to shareholders and golden parachutes to millionaire CEOs on Wall Street.

When you choose that Giant-Internet-Corporation over Mom-and-Pop, you’re voting FOR building “fulfillment centers” a.k.a. vast warehouses that will temporarily house your purchases while en route to your door INSTEAD OF walkable, mixed-use human-scale streets with unique shops and memorable experiences.

As citizens, we are accountable. We have the power to vote for what we want with our dollars and with our policies. The GoodJobsFirst.org ‘Subsidy Tracker’ reports Amazon.com has received $64,297,962 in subsidies in the state of South Carolina. That’s right, our state and local government entities have given more than $64 million of our tax dollars to the largest internet-based retailer in the world.

The odds seem well-stacked against local retailers when both citizens and government are choosing the online giants over our locals. And what are we all buying online? BusinessInsider.com reported Amazon.com’s 2016 growth was driven by sales in the following categories: 1) Electronics, 2) Home and Kitchen, 3) Apparel and Accessories, 4) Food, 5) Health and Beauty, as well as books/movies/music and flowers/gifts.

You guessed it — we have fantastic homegrown businesses that offer nearly all those items, likely with better quality and service. I’m not asking you to quit cold turkey. But what if you applied the same mindfulness you cultivate in your yoga session to shopping for the big and small purchases in your daily life. Is this [insert item] available from a business headquartered here in my hometown? Not sure? Check Lowcountry Local First’s online Local Business Directory, which also denotes women-owned, minority-owned, and veteran-owned businesses. It’s not hard, and it feels great to support the business anchored here in our community.

I say all this with the caveat that many of our local businesses depend on online shopping revenue — both from their own websites and even from third-party sales sites like Amazon.com, so the issue is far from black-and-white, and by all means, shop online with our local businesses.

As we pledge to do our part, retailers must evolve to meet changing trends and preferences as well. We hear about people spending money on experiences over things these days. The same holds true for retail stores. When you create a great experience for your customers — one built on relationships — they will keep coming back. When you visit Wonder Works Toys and see the magical world and amazing customer service owner Christine Osborne has created inside her stores, you can never go back to Toys-R-Us. When you buy a mattress from The Charleston Mattress, and hear the story of how it was handcrafted in North Charleston from owner Liz Rennie, then receive fantastic delivery service from co-owner KC Rennie, you’re a customer for life.

Let’s agree that we’re not “too busy” to make some small changes to support the businesses that have invested in our community. We’re not too busy to those that support our local nonprofits, create jobs, and work with other local businesses. We’re not too busy to support those that reinvest profits back into our economy, increasing our tax base, which results in more money for parks, fire stations, and schools. I know you binge-watched an entire season of House of Cards. Surely, you can find time to visit some local shops next time you need a pair of shoes, some dog food or a gift for your niece.

Every dollar you spend and every tax dollar our state and local governments spend is shaping our community in small and large ways. I want to live in a community full of vibrant small businesses that are 100 percent unique. That means I must show up for them. So that’s my plea: show up for your locals. Think local first. Make small changes. Ask your local elected officials how much money our governments are spending with Amazon.com. Ask them to support land use policies and development that levels the playing field for local businesses. Be mindful. Be proud of the place where you live. Choose the Lowcountry over Anywhere, USA.

Lauren Gellatly is the Community Development Director at Lowcountry Local First — a nonprofit organization that cultivates an economy anchored in local ownership, because local-independent businesses are the cornerstone of our culture, economy, and character.

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