I saw firsthand this week why it’s sometimes difficult to buy local.
While in a shoe store, waiting to be helped, I witnessed the following interaction:
Customer: “I want these shoes but I want them in _______ (color not available in store).”
Salesperson: “We can order them for you, no problem. It’s a $25 non-refundable deposit.”
Customer: “But these don’t always fit the same and I’d want to try them.”
Salesperson: “Yes, they’re hand-sewn so they aren’t all exactly alike.”
Customer: “But if the deposit is non-refundable and they don’t fit right….?
Salesperson: “Yes, if it’s something we don’t have keep in stock, that deposit is non-refundable.”
(I admit to not providing an exact transcript here but I pledge the essence is there.)
Part of me wanted to sidle over and tell the customer the names of websites that offer free shipping and free return shipping. I did not. I don’t know how the transaction ended because by then I was happily trying on my own shoes (with excellent service, by the way).
So there’s the rub: The small business doesn’t want to shoulder the entire risk of ordering stock it might not be able to sell and that’s reasonable and understandable. For the consumer to share the risk, however, is not necessary. What to do?
While pondering this I called another store that special orders frequently for customers: Flyleaf Books. Customers don’t have to pay for the orders until they come in and not at all if the order isn’t what the customer wanted.
Clearly the business model is different for the two stores but you can see the dilemma: in the first case the customer, by buying local, could end up paying part of the cost and still not owning the shoes.
Free market economists would tell me asking questions about the viability of this program is futile. I believe they would say it will either be sustainable because consumers either want to shop there or want the goods enough to overlook the risk and possible cost or it won’t be, because shoppers will pursue other options.
Still, I’d like to know: what would you have done in that case? Leave a comment below or write to me at email@example.com
P.S. A recent column mentioned University Mall’s community offerings and suggested it was a different form of a town square. That was never more true than today when the parking lot was filled and the crowds inside were filling the library, learning about Chapel Hill 2020 and children had lots of options of their own.