Yes, I'll "Buy Local" - IF the product is good

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (755 Words)

There’s a campaign that’s been running here for a while called ‘Buy Local’ which encourages people to buy things from their local shops rather than ordering online, thus putting money back into the local economy. In general, this is a sensible message that I can support. But the more I think about it, the more I think it may be missing the point.

I think what needs to be said is that the fact that you’re local isn’t justification for customers to prefer you over another supplier if your product or service are sub-par. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great local shops and suppliers who provide excellent products and services. But we also have some who, let’s just say, “phone it in” - you probably all know a few examples.

In the past, before the Internet, these businesses could get away with providing average service, slow delivery, awkward ordering processes, and sub-par products because people didn’t have any other convenient alternatives. Sure, those of us who read specialty magazines would find ads for companies we could order from over the phone to avoid the teeth-sucking of local vendors when we asked for unusual products, but it was low-volume. All of a sudden the Internet made sure that local vendors have to compete on a far more level playing field with, potentially, the world.

A lot of the argument tends to revolve around price, but to be honest it’s really not about price (for me). Low-value, commodity, non-perishable goods are always going to be very hard to compete on and you should probably get out of those businesses these days if you’re a small supplier (wherever you are). But I will pay a percentage over the odds for good face-to-face service, convenience, and on items whose quality I care about - especially higher value items, or perishable ones. I don’t mind if you’re a little bit dearer locally if the service is good, the product is good, and especially if you have it in stock already. What I will not accept is a poor customer experience or an inferior product, both of which I have experienced on occasion when trying to ‘buy local’ over the alternatives. As I said, this is not universal, and there are good local suppliers, but there are quite a few who are still living in the past, those salad days of little effective competition, and are not putting enough effort in to cope with the new norm. Sometimes I feel that the ‘Buy Local’ message can be used as a diversion - “Shame on you for not supporting local businesses!” - instead of accepting that people are going elsewhere mostly because you’re not offering what people want. The market speaks - some local vendors need to realise that while locality is a selling point, your core product / service quality has to already be competitive for it to matter.

I think we can get complacent in the western world, and especially in comfortable, previously isolated places like Guernsey. Guernsey leans heavily on its ‘special’ legal / tax status as a lever in the financial services sector, which I think might engender an attitude in some that ‘being different’ excuses not being competitive on a level playing fields in other sectors. ┬áMy experience is quite different; I’ve been selling software products & services to a global audience for years, and I gain no advantage in that market from the nuances of my location, so I’ve had to compete on the same terms as everyone else, no excuses. Again it’s not all about price - programmers in developing countries are much cheaper than I am - but get the product and service right, and customers will come. Excuses related to the oddness of my location are irrelevant, because the customer simply doesn’t care, the product must speak for itself.

I think the Internet has brought that hard reality to the local retail sector too, and it’s a shock to some. The proper response is retail stepping up its game to meet that new reality, rather than leaning on ancillary arguments for why a customer should choose to buy local. If the product and service is good, and you get the message out, they’ll choose to do it anyway. So if they’re not, IMHO you need to question the real underlying reasons for that and address them, rather than expecting a PR campaign to solve it.

All things being equal, buying local is good - just don’t use that as a crutch.