Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Supporting local businesses

There is a thread on the Bowen Phorum about high food prices on the island.  I have played a little in that thread, but as the 72nd poster I wrote a response to some who feel that it isn't their duty to "support" local businesses.  Here is my reply:

I had another thought too, and that is that some are making the point that you don't "support" a local business, you just simply buy there.

That has been bugging me a little.  For me there is a difference between The Ruddy Potato and Costco and the difference is that The Ruddy Potato has a different relarionship with its customers than Costco does.  Costco's sole goal is to make money by offering bulk prices on goods that they buy in huge quantities. They live and die by the market and have no scruples about pounding their competition into the ground if it increases their market share.  They would just as soon eliminate The Ruddy Potato as they would Superstore.  That is how big box retail works.  It's about creating the monopoly, increasing your market share to the largest extent possible and growing the return on the investment of the owners.

So fine.

But I think our local businesses on Bowen ARE different.  And I think the difference is that they are trying to do several things at once.  Number one is make a profit, so they have to cover their costs to do that, and as I've said before, costs are high on Bowen, higher than on abandoned industrial land in Port Coquitlam.  Second, they operate within a community with customers who are also their neighbours.  In that there is a trust relationship.  They can certainly break that trust with predatory pricing to either put the competition out of business or to gouge customers, but why would they do that?  To do so risks the relationship they have that will turn people away for them and no one is coming over from Horseshoe Bay to shop at the Ruddy.  In short they have a relationship with us, and they SUPPORT our community.

I'm not saying you have to support them back, but think about it for a minute.  It is an invited part of the relationship.  The Ruddy and the General Store and the BBC and others sponsor events on Bowen, they help raise money and help when people need it, they provide learning experiences for students and jobs for residents.  They make it a mission to bring quality products to our shores, something we would miss terribly if they didn't exist.  They are not merely businesses and I believe that there is a social contract that says they will continue to support the community if the community continues to support them.

The cold emotionless dynamic of the free market is not the core mechanic of our community.  We all live together on Bowen in a community that is rather more complicated and nuanced than that.  If you want to live in a place with low prices, where the only relationships are transactional, plant yourself on Bridgeport Road in Richmond and shop at Ikea, Superstore and all the other big boxes.  You'll get your dollar's worth but you'll miss something.

To the best of my knowledge the businesses that have gone out of business during the time I have been on Bowen have mostly failed because they didn't manage to connect to the community.  Their prices might have been lower and their quality fine, but the businesses were dark.  No one went in there, no one talked about them and the businesses themselves didn't get involved in the community.  A few have failed for purely business reasons: they didn't know what they were doing, they got into a bad financial situation (if anyone has the monopoly on Bowen, it is the owners of commercial land...there is a true scarcity of that and they can charge whatever they want in rent).  Some of these came and went with scarcely a thought and others, largely victims of financial externalities they couldn't control (read RENT), like Lily Hooper's Teahouse and La Mangerie, I miss even now.  

So I think I do have an obligation to support our local businesses if I want a community in which they are an active part, a community in which they support us.  Feel free to disagree, but for those of you out there who own and work at Blue Eyed Mary's, Bowen Kayaking, the Taco Shop, The Snug, Mik-Sa, Tuscany, Gino's, the General Store, the Beer and Wine Store, the Village Baker, Phoenix, The Ruddy the Video Store, the Pharmacy, Artisan Eats, Cocoa West, Movement, Alderwood, BBC, the Gas Station and all the other services, insurance, notary, massage health and otherwise, thank you.  You have a loyal customer, and a supporter in me.

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