Editorial: The internet poses yet another challenge to local shopping

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Running a retail store in a rural community is fraught with challenges—but with the advent of the 21st Century, those challenges have been stepped up dramatically as brick and mortar stores in even larger centres are coming under fire from online ordering. 

A number of the basic laws of retail produced many of the original challenges faced by rural stores, but many of those challenges were offset by the distance a customer had to travel to reach a larger retail store, at least until the advent of the automobile drastically shrunk the world as we buy it. Even the mail-order catalogue (the horse and buggy forerunner of online ordering) was little threat to rural stores as delivery times were measured in weeks, if not months, and gratification of demand, while not so instant in those days, was still better served by the in-store experience.

Towns were usually built around a focal point that often consisted of a hotel, or group of hotels, spaced about one day’s horse and buggy ride apart. Any seasoned traveller across this nation will have noted the plethora of ghost commercial centres but they might have missed that these centres were surrounding a now long-closed hotel.

Each smaller rural centre began to find itself subsumed into a larger urban orbit, in time becoming, at best, a bedroom community for that growing town or city. Sometimes a small rural community has found a champion, or champions, usually headed up by an understandable commercial self interest that manages to turn back the tide and prove an exception to the rule. But far more such tiny communities, and their attendant retail centres, have succumbed to the centrifugal forces of history and improved transportation technology.

Large urban big box stores and ubiquitous chain outlets with their immense buying power have largely in their turn eviscerated the small mom and pop convenience store and department stores that once dotted the urban landscape. Now, those same massive retail brick and mortar operations are falling in turn victim to the advent of online ordering and the incredible turnaround times now being experienced in the delivery industry.

Order it today, get it by tomorrow (or the next day if you are in a really remote community); what is a small retail operation to do.

While small rural stores everywhere have often been accused of “gouging” due to their larger markups, the simple laws of retail dictate that the longer your turnaround time for stock, the less product you move, the larger your percentage markup must be in order to remain a viable business. It is the act of freeing up the capital locked in inventory that drives most incredible sales events. Better to lose money by selling below your own cost so you can rotate those dollars with something that does sell.

Things will always be a little more expensive in a small store in a rural community, but that difference does not always factor in as all that much when the cost of travelling to another centre is factored in. But with the advent of the internet and online ordering, the paradigm has changed once again.

The problem with not shopping local compounds the matter, as one by one, storefronts in small communities become vacant and soon only the modern equivalent of mail order becomes the only option. Worse, people become used to the convenience of surfing the net for products and don’t even stop into their neighbourhood stores to see if what they want can be found within its walls.

As residents of rural communities we can all too soon find ourselves lamenting no longer being able to find the products we need locally, forcing us to travel to larger centres to find what we need or rolling the dice on a click of a mouse and hoping that what arrives in the mail (or by courier) is actually something that meets our needs.

Soon gone is the local expertise and support that once accompanied a purchase, to be replaced by plummeting rural employment rates and the spectre of the dead-eyed gaze of empty and abandoned storefronts greeting us when we do head “downtown.”

We can not hope to completely turn back the tide on many of these historic economic disruptions anymore than our parents and grandparents could save the bulk of the buggy whip manufacturers, but we can make a difference by taking the time and making the effort to visit our local retailers and discovering what they have to offer. The more we engage in those simple acts of parochial commerce, the less endangered will be our rural retail operations and the more we can support one another—our friends and neighbours.