Last summer, I bought two Adirondack chairs. My husband had been talking about wanting this kind of chair for at least ten years. He’d routinely stop the car to test out Adirondack chairs we saw displayed in front of garden centers and furniture stores. He had very precise expectations for the curve of the back, the materials, the construction, and the ergonomics of the chairs. He knew where the chairs would go (on the little empty deck that gets great morning sunlight).
This went on for many, many years. The discussion. The casual shopping. And the rejection every time, on one basis or another: “too expensive, uncomfortable, we can’t afford them, we don’t need them, we can’t get these home today, let’s think about it a little more.”
Last summer I was delighted when I saw a 40% off sign, in the peak of the season, at the very store my husband had previously declared to have the best Adirondack chairs. I turned the car around, went straight to the cash register, and snapped two up, anticipating my husband’s happiness at the good deal. But as I talked to the owner of the store, I began to feel a little different about the “steal.” His shop was struggling. Sales were down 50%. He’d bought his inventory before the economy started unraveling. He had a cash flow problem.
I began to regret the purchase, while simultaneously thinking….yet this store owner actually needs me to buy these chairs more than ever. But at this price? He can’t be covering his costs.
Similarly, I saw a wonderful array of fresh household purchases at a friend’s house. Candle holders, rugs, art. Truly distinct and special things. They were from a shop I’d just read about in the newspaper. The article hailed the shop owner’s for her consistency in supporting Fair Trade practices. Why did my friend buy so much? The store was going out of business.
It deeply concerns me that the combination of price-shopping on the Internet, big box stores, and the current economy is training us all to become inveterate bargain hunters. That’s fine for old-line brands and products and shops, who have long since reaped profits from a particular product’s early heydays. But when are the heydays for the new products, smaller retailers, and the young companies who haven’t yet gotten great distribution and scale economies? Not everything CAN be sold on a deal. Some products have to be sold at full price to ensure the shop or producer’s survival. It’s not that these business people or producers are greedy….far from it. We know this first-hand at Grommet. Most of these entrepreneurial efforts are products of pure passion. They just can’t be–economically speaking– WalMart or Sony or Procter and Gamble. Nor would we want them to be.
There has to be room in our consumer behavior to support the new products and young enterprises. Why? Imagine a world full of what WalMart decides. Or Amazon. Amazon is wonderful on many levels, but it is also an extremely sophisticated financial machine–driving deep discounts in all of its major categories. This is a key reason why my town has lost all four of its local bookstores. A real loss to the fabric of our lives. On its side, WalMart has no tolerance in its model for helping us discover the new, the unique, and the admittedly fragile young product suppliers. They buy big, and conservative. Period.
I “get” the tension, and the risk of total idealism, in this thinking. I’ve lived on skinny household budgets for big chunks of my life. And after all, I didn’t offer to pay full price for the Adirondack chairs! But I’d like to believe that we could perhaps buy fewer items, but buy them well. Sure, if you really need giant boxes of Cheerios, Costco has a place. But I’d hate to see the rest of our product experiences painted with the same deep discount brush. The cost of those discounts can be extraordinarily high–at least to those of us who want a world enrichened by the type of products and retailers that are the polar opposite of WalMart.