I grew up in a small town. When I was in sixth grade or so, I wanted a new bicycle (having pretty much outgrown my little bike with the banana seat). I had my eye on a fancy new 10-speed and wanted to go to “the cities” (as Minneapolis-St. Paul is still called in greater Minnesota) and pick from the cream of the crop. Nope, my dad said. I could have any bicycle I wanted, but I had to buy it in town. My hometown of about 1,500 had two hardware stores (three grocery stores, a general store, two furniture stores, a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a roller rink) so it’s not like I didn’t have options, but I whined. Usually I could wrangle my way with my dad.
Not this time. He didn’t even remotely budge. Hometown purchase it was. He was a small business owner (one of those furniture stores). He knew the value of social relations. He was instilling in me a number of values here that I didn’t realize for years: the importance of social relations, the value of buying local, and the difference between being a customer and a consumer.
I had not particularly marked the customer/consumer difference until reading The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification, by Paul Roberts. Shopping used to entail a social obligation. The person that owns the grocery store is my neighbor. You say hello, you have a little chat. They see what you buy, you talk about your leaky roof, her dog, your sore back. Historically, economic relations have been completely intertwined with social relationships. Buying meant being a customer, “a socially constructed, socially constrained role that required us to engage in an often complicated and time-consuming social interaction every time we made a purchase.”
And then came the big-box stores. According to Roberts, “The genius of the big-box retail stores, for example, wasn’t just their low, low prices, but the depersonalized, one-stop format that let us minimize shopping’s social obligations.” (Well and wasn’t that a welcome thing for many of those small-town people who didn’t actually WANT the person behind the drugstore counter to see what they were purchasing, but that’s a topic for a different blog.)
But my dad knew what he was talking about. My argument that the bicycle would be cheaper in the cities held no weight with him. He knew people could find cheaper furniture, too, if they were willing to obviate their social obligations. And then where would our small town be? Main Street would be empty, which it pretty much is today—in my hometown and many like it throughout the midwest. Roberts cites research on the big-box phenomenon and its impact on small towns:
Within two years of a new Walmart coming to town, local shops within a twenty-mile radius see sales decline by 25-60%. These kinds of losses lead to the closing of small-town stores, leaving residents with fewer shopping options. The success of a big-box store can substantially increase the distance people have to drive for groceries. My hometown now has only one grocery store, but they are lucky. Many small towns don’t have any grocery stores at all anymore.
Not only have they lost their local shopping options, they’ve lost a large chunk of their supportive infrastructure: Local merchants provide more stable work environments, are more supportive of local social programs, initiatives, and community affairs in general.
So it happened. Most of Main Street went away, to the detriment of the local residents both in terms of convenience and livelihood. Why do we do this? According to Roberts, it has a lot to do with intertemporal decision making. In short, immediate desire often trumps delayed gratification. Less and less are we willing to put off until tomorrow what we can have today, even if we can’t afford it (that’s what credit is for). I’m giving it short shrift—there’s so much more there.
The Impulse Society is fascinating reading, looking at our increasing self-preoccupation and its relation to marketing, economics, culture, politics, digital technology, friendship networks, and power (a mere starter list). I expect I’ll fill you in more as I continue. It’s that kind of book. In the meantime, I’m going to work towards being more of a customer, and less of a consumer.