Shopping Local

by Laura on April 25, 2010

in Blog


This is part of an ongoing series in which I look at the way I shop – and where I shop – and wonder if things could be better. My store of choice these days has been Whole Foods, but I’ll venture on to shop elsewhere.

First, I’ll visit the conventional supermarket, next Trader Joe’s, the local independent supermarket, then Costco, and finally, the farmer’s market. I will note pricing, availability of foods we eat, convenience of shopping at these different venues — including whether I have to supplement elsewhere, and the family’s overall satisfaction with the choices.

Change is hard. Change is disruptive. But at the same time, change is good. And, perhaps what I find out on our shopping adventure is that a simple change in the way (and where) I shop for food will be more beneficial to my family.

As we talk about reconnecting with the foods we eat, reconnecting with the farmers who produce our foods, and buying locally, perhaps this experiment will provide me with a way to do that more frequently. Perhaps this experiment will tell me that it is way too expensive and too time consuming to purchase all my foods from local sources. Who knows what the experiment will reveal, but it is time we gave it a try.

Follow us weekly on our Family Eats blog, and please don’t hesitate to add your comments or suggestions about what has worked, or hasn’t worked for you.

The Benefits of Shopping Local:

  • Keeps money in the local economy–For every two jobs national retailers bring to a community, three jobs are lost as a result of local businesses closing down;
  • Helps fund and maintain local jobs;
  • Local businesses are typically more invested and thoughtful in their purchases;
  • A wonderful destination for socializing;
  • When you shop locally your money is re-circulated over and over and creates up to 75% more tax revenue to your community and state;
  • Independent businesses provide meaningful service with a personal touch. It matters to them that you are satisfied and will come back again;
  • Strengthen community character.

I am fully aware of the benefits with shopping local, so when it comes to this week’s challenge, I ask myself why I haven’t found myself frequenting the local market on a more regular basis? Especially since I am not a fan of big box retailers. Sure they have variety and great price, but I’m a believer that they do nothing for the local economy, and have seen all too often in my professional life, the big box retailers have been the demise of an independent specialty store who cannot compete.

Yet, while I agree with the above benefits, and am empathetic to the owner who struggles to compete with the big guys, I still haven’t made the plunge to shopping local. I may not buy into the big box, bulk-buying, lowest-price-I-can-find mantra, but I’m still shopping at national chain stores that give independent retailers a run for their money. This week, however, I set out to change my mentality, and give the local independent market a try.

I chose the market closest to my home, located right in our little city. I’ve been in the store to purchase items for on-the-go – such as a sandwich or something to drink, but have never been to the market for a full-blown shopping excursion. The main reason is I feel that their prices are too high. I am about to find out . .

The store is smaller than I’m used to shopping in, but it still seemed to have a variety in the produce section, at least enough to satisfy my needs this week. But, as I began to grab the things I needed–cucumbers, cauliflower, garlic, tomatoes and so on, I took note of the high prices–more than $5 for a head of organic cauliflower, $2.50 for an organic cucumber, and so on.

I immediately made the decision to buy those items that were comparable in price to what I could get elsewhere, and hold off on the high-priced produce, until I could make it to my usual stores.

So, with that in mind, I purchased those produce items that weren’t priced too much higher than I would typically spend, and then moved on to the meat counter. It was filled with a lot of choices, and the prices seemed to be a bit higher than I would get a Whole Foods – still I forged on. While acquainting myself with the offerings, I didn’t see any signage on the meat and poultry that indicated whether the meat was organic, or produced without the use of antibiotics. So I asked the man behind the counter. The question stumped him. He wasn’t sure and he looked around desperately for an answer. When I spotted a sign that provided me with the answer, I pointed it out to him for future reference. (So much for staff being more knowledgeable.)

As I turned the corner to the next aisle, I began my search for all things packaged—cereal, pasta and the like – but stopped dead in my tracks once I realized how outrageous the prices were. The same box of cereal I usually purchase at Whole Foods was $1.25 more expensive here, and the pasta was almost $1 more a box here. As I continued down that aisle, I saw more and more similar or exact same products consistently significantly higher than I could pay 2 minutes down the road at Whole Foods. And, if I decided that I wanted to save even more money, I could make the few-mile trek to Trader Joe’s.

Numerous times as I stood alone in the aisle, I went to grab what I needed, then caught myself, saying that I’d buy that item at a different store. Soon, I was saying that to everything on my list.

If I could find a point of differentiation between the products I found on their store shelves, and those I could buy elsewhere, perhaps I could have justified the price premium. But, they were the same brands.

I decided it was time to leave. I didn’t have it in me to leave the produce and meat behind, so paid for them, and moved on to another store to finish my shopping.

I understand the economics of local, independent stores – they don’t have the buying clout that larger chains or big box retailers like WalMart of Costco have, therefore they don’t get the volume buying discounts. Consequently, the prices are a bit higher.

But here, in this instance, I am confused. I didn’t get better service, and no one said a word to me, unless I approached them. And, there was no point of differentiation in product – nothing that screamed local to me, no highlighting of local artisans and food producers, just another place to purchase national brands.

Now, I don’t want this to dissuade everyone from shopping locally. I know of so many locally owned food stores that offer great service and competitive prices that I was truly disappointed that my experience was as such. I want to embrace the local, and I wish this relationship would have worked out, but for the time being the experience provides me with no point of differentiation than the Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s experience.

Local experiences should give you a sense of home. They should give you something you can’t find in the national chains. And, unfortunately, I didn’t get that from my local experience.

Hopefully I can find a local independent to capture my business, and I challenge our readers to give your local store a try. You may be pleasantly surprised at the service, variety and sense of community your experience.

Next week, I’ll bridge the gap to the other end of the spectrum, and head out to experience the big box retailer, Costco. Until then, happy shopping!

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