The tangible benefits of shopping Mom and Pop are well documented: You skip the drive to the mall or superstore, hence saving carbon emissions, and those fruit-stand peaches use about one-tenth the energy to produce than the ones shipped across the globe to the Wal-Mart (WMT). A study by Chicago retail-industry tracking firm Civic Economics indicates that local business owners keep more profits in the community. But independent stores also offer better service and build communities. Plus, shopping there is fun.
Tony’s Hardware in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, is an old-fashioned shop with worn wooden floors. Its very presence is an argument for local character over the bland big box. But the real advantage is that owner Tony Gonzalez knows the neighborhood, knows that the plaster-and-lathe wall you’re mounting a shelf on needs a certain kind of wall anchor. Standing before the vast expanse of fasteners at Home Depot (HD), you’re lucky to find a clerk, let alone someone who knows what your walls are made of.
Another Brooklyn retailer, Lara Fieldbinder, who owns the clothing shop Dear Fieldbinder, remembers what customers purchase and like, and you can count on her to tell you that a coat with many tiny buttons isn’t good for a harried working mother. Fieldbinder may carry fewer styles of jeans than Gap (GPS), but you leave feeling certain you’ll wear the item you bought.
Studies show shoppers at local produce markets have many more conversations than shoppers in chain supermarkets. Besides being less lonely, it’s surely more relaxing when your kid is munching on a carrot proffered by the farmer instead of screaming for Starbursts at the superstore checkout.
Working at a Mom and Pop is an education in itself. This writer delivered prescriptions for a small independent pharmacy in Cincinnati while in high school. When the pharmacist would explain to me that the Rx he was filling was for severe morning sickness, I understood something of the desperate-looking and grateful woman who answered the door when I rang.
Local shops do give cities and neighborhoods their uniqueness. So, yes, enjoy the quirky sign and the coffee drink not made from a trucked-in mix. But take pleasure, too, in being well taken care of.
Mom-and-Pop stores add character and diversity to the community—there’s no denying that. What most consumers don’t realize is that by frequenting big-box retailers, they actually help small businesses and the local economy thrive.
Suppose that Gigantic Big Box Home Improvement opens a new store in Small Town, U.S.A. Yes, nearby independent hardware stores will lose a big chunk of business and may ultimately sink. But suddenly, the independent gas station down the street has a line of cars, the local café is jam-packed with lunch-goers, and a few hundred people move into the neighborhood—some of whom will start their own small businesses.
What’s more, the Mom and Pops will start to buy their hammers and nails from Home Depot because it’s cheaper than going to Grandpappy’s Hardware.
Most other consumers also have an obligation to their own budgets to seek out the least expensive merchandise available. Sure, Grandpappy’s Hardware may offer more and better advice about the choice between a chain saw and a jigsaw. But shoppers in need of a large quantity of nails, a heavy-duty tape measure, or a replacement for a stolen lawnmower should not be faulted for buying from a big box that offers the lowest price.
The giant stores might just offer more than bargains, too. The most successful big-box chains, such as Whole Foods (WFMI), are the ones that practice good social responsibility. In addition to buying from local organic growers, the retailer makes $10 million in low-interest loans available to small farmers. Whole Foods and other chains are dependent upon the small-business community, so they’re taking steps to ensure its survival.
After traveling cross-country to talk shop with Mom and Pops for their 2005 film Independent America, Heather Hughes and Hanson Hosein discovered a relationship of interdependence between big boxes and the little guy. “We didn’t condemn corporate chains in our film,” Hosein told BusinessWeek in December. “There are relationships between independents and corporate chains that you can’t deny. We’re more looking for the healthy balance where the corporate chains don’t become the dominant institution or retailer in a town.”Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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