Editorial Policy

Can you afford to shop local?

Kristin McGrath

January 4, 2013

You’ve probably already heard the sad story: Online marketplaces and comparison-shopping apps are pushing small stores out of business. In fact, according to the expert predictions in this CNBC article, consumers’ passion for bargains will soon push traditional brick-and-mortar retailers to the brink of extinction.

The idea of shuttered mom-and-pop stores is the fuel behind “shop local” movements and events like Small Business Saturday — which encourage consumers to eschew chain stores and Amazon.com and sample the independent restaurants and boutiques in their neighborhoods.

At the same time, you can’t blame people for bargain hunting. If you can save your family money (and time) by ordering online, it’s hard to justify opening your wallet to help small businesses stay afloat.

This conflict was very much on my mind as I began my Christmas shopping this season. On one hand, I’m a bargain-hunter at heart. Plus, the fact that my family lives far away means online shopping (and free shipping) makes sense. At the same time, I live in Austin, Texas, where the love and support for local businesses is strong. The city even has a slogan (“Keep Austin Weird”), which was coined by the Austin Independent Business Alliance to promote local businesses. I felt guilty for not doing my part to keep my city a charming, quirky place to live, so I decided to buy as many gifts as I could locally and fight the temptation to search out deals online.

Overall, my experience reminded me that traditional retailers have something online ones don’t — personalized customer service. My first stop was a local store that specializes in oddities and knick-knacks. When I hit the register with all my purchases, the store owner asked if I wanted them gift-wrapped.

“No thanks,” I said. “These have to go on an airplane, and security will probably just unwrap them.”

She responded by gathering some folded tissue paper and gift bags.

“Here, these will be easy to tuck into your suitcase,” she said.

Score! Free gift wrap.

When I handed over my card to pay, I realized she had forgotten to ring up a small $8 candle. I pointed it out.

“Oops, my mistake,” the owner responded. “So that’s our gift to you. Merry Christmas!”

Score again! Free candle for my family’s white elephant gift exchange.

I also stopped at a game store to buy a board game for my dad and tackled the rest of my gift list with books from a local? (as opposed to B&N?) bookstore.

My shopping trip (and all the parking, browsing and waiting in lines) definitely took more time than pointing and clicking would have. And, for the sake of this blog, I decided to see if it ended up costing me more money as well. I compared the prices on my credit card statement with the prices for similar items on Amazon.com and, according to my calculations, I spent almost $40 more by shopping local — $32 once you factor in the free candle. Each book cost between $3 and $5 dollars more than if I had bought them online, and the store-bought candles were each a couple bucks more than their similarly sized and scented online counterparts. The board game was $10 more, and a bottle of perfume I purchased was $7 more.

Still, I like to think of that extra money as a donation to the local economy. A “Keep Austin Weird” tax, if you will.

If you’re thinking about how much spent over the holidays, too, check out this week’s money blog roundup.

Enemy of Debt reminds you that it’s never too late to take control of your life.

Money $mart Guides runs down the basics of a good emergency fund.

The Debt Myth advises how to deal with the dreaded unexpected bill.

Kristina of DINKS Finance confesses what kept her from filing for bankruptcy.

Young and Thrifty explains how to realize your financial goals in 2013.

Club Thrifty suggests three items to sell to make money after the holidays.