Having an undergraduate degree can be a pain. I often hear politicians or those with a political motivation make a sweeping statement about an economics topic that is far too complicated to summarize in a single sentence. It is frustrating because without a PhD it is hard to refute a politician with any credibility at all. What is even worse is I know the politician could be right, but for the wrong reasons. Take the idea of buying local, for instance. It is often said or believed that buying local is very important for an economy. I do not disagree with that sentiment. In fact, I like to support local stores as much as possible. My only problem is I have no idea what “buying local” actually means.
In the small Maine town I grew up in, there were two hardware stores: a well-known national retailer and a store owned and operated by a local resident. Although there is some differentiation between the two stores, for the most part they are identical. The stores are roughly the same size (the national retailer is much smaller than normal locations), they sell many identical products, and they employ approximately the same number of people at the same wage. Unless things have changed, the national store is typically 10% cheaper. Where should I shop? I should buy local right? Sure, but which store is local? Both stores hire local residents. They pay taxes to the same places. Of course their products are certainty not locally made. They sell identical tools that are sold by large corporations that are made either out of state or out of the country. Do I go to the more expensive store to benefit the local owner? Let’s say the national retailer is able to save me $20 on a purchase, which I use to go out to eat at a local restaurant, where 20 people are employed. Would that be more beneficial to the local economy? I have no idea.
As many may already know, I served a two year mission in Wisconsin. For approximately seven months, I served in the wonderful city of Kenosha, a place residents often referred to as “the biggest small town in America.” When you are in an area for seven months, you learn quite a bit about it. For example, there are a number of companies that locate their headquarters or corporate offices in Kenosha, including Jockey International, Ocean Spray, and Snap-on tools. Sticking with the hardware theme, let’s say I need to buy some tools. Which tools should I buy? Snap-on right? After all, it is the local company. The only issue is Snap-on does not sell tools in stores. One of their philosophies is nobody should waste time going to a store to purchase tools. Instead, Snap-on sends a consultant/salesperson in a truck with a wide selection of equipment. This personalized method is great for professionals, but Snap-on does not recommend the delivery truck for hobbyists. Instead, consumers are directed to their online store. If I am a Kenosha resident, should I go to the local hardware store that does not sell Snap-on, but rather tools made out of state and out of the country? Do I purchase online to support the local corporation which employs hundreds in Kenosha? What will benefit Kenosha more? Once again, I have no idea.
After those seven months in Kenosha, I took a two hour drive to my final area, Middleton, a suburb of Madison. Within that area there is a small little town called Sauk City. Even though I only visited once, Sauk City holds a wonderful place in my heart stomach because it has the first location of my favorite fast food chain, Culvers. They are all over the state. In Fond du Lac, my third area, there are three Culvers locations, despite a relatively small population of 43,000. Culvers first opened in 1984. Three years later, they tried opening their first franchise, which closed within a year due to circumstances outside of their control. In 1990, Culvers opened its first successful franchise. In 1993, they were still the small local chain with only 14 locations. Today there are over 500 locations. When I go the Lehi, Utah franchise, are they still the local company I knew in Wisconsin, or are they now a corporation that stomps on the up and coming Utah burger joints? Should I stop eating at Culvers to help the local economy? I truly have no idea what would be best.
What does it mean to buy local? Nearly everything in my apartment that I bought was purchased in Provo or Orem, but with the exception of Church books, none of it was made in Utah. Does purchase location truly mean I bought local? The computer I am typing on was purchased at the BYU Bookstore, it was designed in Cupertino, California, and manufactured in China. My car was bought in Maine, designed in Japan, and built in North America. Is it ever possible to truly buy local? I want to support my fellow Orem residents, but I don’t know how. Do you? Actually, don’t worry about it, I’ll just ask my local politicians. I’m sure they know.