Local businesses keep communities alive

Originally published in the Rutland County Express on Jan 12, 2012.

In a recent post on Slate.com   entitled, “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller,” technology columnist Farhad Manjoo posed an interesting and somewhat convincing argument: in this world of Amazon, with our iPads and Kindles, independent bookstores are inefficient, inconvenient and expensive.

Manjoo writes, “Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store … offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for and a dubious recommendations engine.”

Needless to say, such an argument does not go unnoticed or unpunished. Calling bookstores “cultish, moldering institutions” is sure to irk a few ires. Refutations came pouring in from all sides — the literati, the buy-localistas and various other well-meaning, indignant Luddites (as Manjoo might like to characterize them).

Indeed, Manjoo’s plaint sounds like that stereotypical urbanite who travels to the country and whines about the lack of cell phone service or absence of a Starbucks. While he made some strong and valid points in both posts that cannot be ignored, there is a troubling strain of social fracture and personal isolationism in his argument. As technology becomes increasingly pervasive in our personal lives, we find ourselves becoming increasingly alone.

Societal fear has reared its head at the dawn of every new medium — be it radio, television and now the Internet. It’s nothing new. I note this not to bemoan new technology, but to bring attention to the potential slippery slope, which I believe Manjoo’s argument can lead us down.

One benefit and drawback to the rise of so much personal technology is that it allows us unprecedented control over content and, as a result, what we experience. In 2004, The New Atlantis writer and editor Christine Rosen addressed this phenomenon when she coined the term “ego-casting .” Defined as “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste,” Rosen argues that technologies that have given power to the individual, from the remote control to the iPod, have created “a world where the individual’s control over the content, style and timing of what he consumes is nearly absolute.” The end result of such power, as she sees it, is ironically the increasing difficulty “to appreciate genuine individuality.”

Intellectually and culturally, egocasting limits not only our own unique experiences but also our ability to share those experiences with others. If I only listen to my iPod, at the coffee shop, I’m going to miss that great new song the barista just cued up. If I only watch Fox News or MSNBC, I’m only going reinforce and narrow my political views. If I only shop online, I am going to miss out on a unique, real-world experience.

Take, for example, Manjoo’s “frustrating consumer experience” of shopping at a physical store, which requires you to suffer the inconvenience of having to search for an item yourself (sans Google) and have a social interaction with one or more actual human beings. Yes, Amazon has a better selection for a better price; there is no debate there. However, setting those factors aside, a more existential argument can be made about what physical stores have to offer — namely, an unique experience of community.

This is the value of our local, independent retailers. (I add “independent” here because I would argue chains and box stores can be almost as impersonal as the Internet.) A physical purchase is more than a transaction; it is a meaningful exchange of more than currency, an opportunity for a personal connection.

Ultimately, Manjoo refines his position in a subsequent post where he offered some insight into how not only bookstores, but all independent retailers can compete with the Internet. His main piece of advice was simple: adapt and evolve. Here Manjoo and I agree. Independents need to embrace technology rather than retreat from it.

At its most basic level, that means having a website and social media presence. While some business owners may argue that, in a small one- or two-person operation, there is no time to manage a website or use social media, they do so at their own peril. Launching a website is much easier and affordable that most think, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can be maintained with ease through free services like TweetDeck and HootSuite.

Still, making this leap can be intimidating for some. Understanding this, local chambers of commerce and other business organizations are offering social media workshops and seminars with increasing frequency. Locally, there have been several such events held in the Rutland area over the past year. Attendance has been lackluster, which is unfortunate, but not surprising — our local business community has a fairly unimpressive digital footprint.

That needs to change. As people continue to bring the Internet with them as they shop — a growing trend has consumers visiting physical stores to compare prices only to make the purchase online — retailers need to compete.

Using Amazon as an example, Manjoo sug – gests turning its greatest strength, the customer review, against it. He writes, “If I ran a hardware store, I’d put up a sign encouraging in-store research: ‘Looking for a drill? People on Amazon love the Black & Decker 9099KC. We offer free Wi-Fi, so feel free to pull out your phone and browse online reviews!’”

It’s a gambit — who’s to say the customer won’t click “buy” after reading the reviews? — but people are already making their buying decisions in this way. At least by integrating these techniques into the physical shopping experience, the retailer remains a part of in the decision-making process.

But in the end, it comes back to community — that will always be advantage of bricks and mortar retail. These are the businesses that populate our downtowns and employ our families and friends. These are the places — the booksellers, the hardware stores, the clothing stores, the cafes and restaurants — that add character and culture to our cities and towns, and provide the new, unique human experiences that are impossible to find online.

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