Namaste, Bug Dude

One of my favorite parts of shopping small is finding small businesses that deliver personality and amazing support when they don’t necessarily have to. It’s one thing to find charming service at a local boutique or restaurant — I love that, but I also expect it. But when a local business turns a dreaded chore like hiring a pest control service into the best part of my day, I appreciate it even more.

Enter Paul, our “bug guy” at Church Street. He breaks all conventional stereotypes of an exterminator: He can’t stop talking about yoga; he’s a passionate environmentalist; he’s a frequent book buyer. (My favorite of his purchases? The Poisoner’s Handbook.)

Most importantly, he does his job well. I’ve worked at the same location when we hired a big box company to do the same job, and his results are better. And he’s not content to simply spray away problems, seeing his job as important to the health of our planet as well as of our employees and customers. “Pest control is about protecting the environment as well as the home,” his website reads. And he’s serious about that, always letting us know about new, natural methods of prevention — I’ve never seen someone so excited about Borax.

We don’t hire Paul because he’s a nice guy, because he’s a bit of a treehugger, or even because he’s local. We hire him because he gets results and his prices are good. But the fact that he brings humanity and real dedication to his work, the fact that we can trust him to do his job and also enjoy his company, makes him a great example of what shopping small is all about.

Field Research: Shopping Big at Anthropologie

Cute reading glasses? Sure. Fifty dollars cute? No way.

I used to be a sucker for Anthropologie’s world-traveler-sprinkled-with-pixie-dust look, and they were once my go-to stop for a new cardigan or a dress to wear to a wedding. Sure, I mostly bought from their sale room, and it didn’t hurt that I got a considerable discount since my sister used to work at their sister store, Urban Outfitters. I knew I was still paying more than I should’ve, and that some of the clothes aren’t really well put together (I’ve had a sleeve fall off more than one cardigan within two weeks of purchase), but everything in the shop was just so pretty that I was willing to look past those little things.

This week, I took a train to visit my friend Elisa in New Orleans. We walked and rode the street car from one end of the city to the other, stopping every hour or so in local cafes, bars, parks and bookshops. So I didn’t feel bad making a short stop at Anthropologie, which we passed by as we walked to the river.*

All year, I’ve missed finding little treasures at Anthropologie, and I was secretly rationalizing a post-Shop Small splurge before we even walked through the doors. But, when we walked through the shop, I was mostly just disappointed. The prices, already too high last year, seem to have actually risen during the recession — I didn’t see a single top for under $100, the two purses I liked were nearly $500, and the plastic reading glasses Elisa and I tried on, not much different $2 drugstore pairs, cost $50.

Basically, the faux bohemian aesthetic seemed really forced, and the prices were kind of stupid. I don’t mind paying more when it supports my community, or when employees get health insurance, or when the products are made in America. But, although Anthropologie has a collected-from-a-market feel, its business practices are no better than any other big box store’s. Far from supporting their employees, they treat them like potential shoplifters, checking their bags when they leave and come to work (Urban Outfitters does this, too). And, though I’ve seen many Made in Malaysia/China/Indonesia tags, I can’t remember seeing a single one stamped U.S.A.

I’m not saying I’ll never go back to Anthropologie, or that anyone should feel bad for shopping there. And I do like the commitment to local artists shown in their in-store decorations. But, for me, the bloom has fallen off the rose a bit, and that I’d rather shop consignment for my purchases. I’ll think twice before I head to The Summit for a sparkly new cardigan and a hefty credit card bill.

* At least I think it was on the way to the river. I’m awful with directions and the whole thing’s gotten a bit jumbled now.

It’s Over!

Last winter it was snowing, I hadn’t lost my favorite gloves yet … and I had no idea what I was in for with a year of shopping small.

Today is the last official day of my Shop Small project. A year ago tonight, I was soaking up the last few big box shopping experiences that I planned to abstain from for the rest of the year. I had dinner at Mellow Mushroom, coffee at Starbucks, and I went to The Summit to catch a late showing of Harry Potter at the Carmike. At midnight, I was toasting 2011 on my neighbor’s porch with a bottle of Prosecco.

Since then, a lot has changed in my life. In addition to completing my Shop Small project, I quit my writing job and opened an independent business, Church Street Coffee & Books, which has been so demanding that I’ve spent most of this New Year’s Eve trying to rest up from the draining holiday retail season. Through my intense first months as an entrepreneur, Shop Small has been rewarding and surprising. It’s been a challenge, an adventure, and something to hold onto through the ups and downs of my year.

The biggest surprises? How easy it was to Shop Small, and how inexpensive. Buying locally required a shift in my habits, but not the rehaul I was expecting. And I’ve spent less money than I have in the past decade, simply by making my purchases with purpose instead of by impulse. I was also shocked by the community’s response. To my amazement, this little blog has thousands of readers, and I’ve met so many people, both Shop Small readers and people who’ve never heard of it, who’ve made commitments to buy local.

I’m often asked if I’ll keep the project going after tonight. The answer is yes … and no. I plan to continue this blog through January to chronicle my return to big box shopping. I’m wondering what my impression of places like Target, Chipotle and Anthopologie — places I loved to shop before — will be, now that I’ve largely avoided them for a year. But I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to shopping exclusively, or even predominately, at chain stores. I’ve realized how important local shops are to local economies, and I’ve experienced how much more they have to offer than impersonal big box stores.

Shop Small has undoubtedly changed my life, most notably because it gave me the push I needed to start my own independent business. But the point of the project wasn’t to stand on a soapbox. My goal was to see if buying primarily locally was possible, if it was practical, and if it could be simple. I’m happy to report that it is all three.

I have been incredibly grateful for and humbled by the response Shop Small has had from my community and from my readers. Thank you for your support, your criticism and your partnership on this experiment. And I have to specifically thank Morgan Trinker for brilliant photography and unflagging support, Elisa Munoz for laughing with me through our podcast and answering all my late-night phone calls, and Clair McLafferty for being a pinch hitter and writing a few key posts when I was overloaded.

See you in 2012.

Who Pays for Free Shipping?

Rain may not stop Fed Ex, but it makes the job more unpleasant.

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. For some reason, common sense like this seems to go out the window when it comes to the holidays. We accept ridiculously low prices and promises of “no waiting” and “free shipping” like Christmas miracles, never stopping to ask why we’re getting offers this good, and who’s paying for them.

Sometimes, the price of our shopping sprees is lack of human decency to the people who pack our presents and make sure they have overnight, speedy delivery. According to this article, in order for a huge retailer like Amazon or Walmart to come through on their shipping promises, they often outsource labor so they can treat people even worse than they treat their own employees. A company can’t provide something for free unless they make up for those lost profits someplace else. In many cases, low wages and inhuman working conditions are the price of our convenience.

And buying online isn’t just worse for workers — it creates an incredible amount of waste. Packing each person’s order separately takes more boxes and packing materials than it does to ship a bulk order to a local shop. To put it in perspective: Last year, I ordered Christmas gifts online for about 15 people from three different stores. I had more packing material left over from those three orders than I do from the past two weeks of ordering books for my shop, and those gifts go to hundreds of different people. Sure, you can erase some of this waste by reusing boxes and packing peanuts (and I hope that you do). But, while reusing is great, not creating the waste in the first place is best.

I’m not arguing that we should never shop online. In fact, web sales can be a great tool for local shops as well as big boxes. But try to buy from small shops that don’t outsource their shipping, so you can be relatively certain the employees aren’t being treated unfairly. And remember to skip the cyber shops when buying for Father Christmas — Mother Earth will thank you.

Honeygate: Does Imported Honey Have a Dark Side?

My dad holds a tiny bear of local We Three Beeks honey. The honey’s quite sweet. Dad? Not so much.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve gotten lots of tips from readers about a story claiming that much of the honey sold in big box stores isn’t honey at all, because it doesn’t contain pollen. This morning, I heard a story on NPR about how China flooded the American market with cut-rate honey and then, when they were stopped, smuggled the cheap honey into our market through other countries.

What I don’t understand about these stories is how shocked people are. It’s not just honey — almost all food shipped here from other countries is considerably lower in nutritional value than food that’s grown locally. Lying about food (or “creatively marketing” it so that food labels are misleading and confusing) is commonplace: These are the same conglomerates who’ve been shoving high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils down our throats for years, who sell us “cheese product” instead of cheese, who put so many additives in ground beef that its classification as meat is questionable. This time, the betrayal is coming from the innocent face of the honey bear, and maybe that makes it more shocking. But it happens every day.

Buying our food locally means we can ask questions of farmers and hold them accountable for what they sell and how they label their food. And food has far more nutrients when it doesn’t travel far to reach you. Real food comes out of the ground, not out of a shipping container.

Local honey is easy to find. I buy mine from Organic Harvest, V. Richards and the farmer’s market, but even Whole Foods has it. My friend Catherine swears by honey she buys at the Botanical Gardens. But my favorite honey this year came from three friends of mine, newly minted beekeepers who started their hive this year and ended up with a small harvest of delicious honey.

I know my honey comes from amazing people — I can even read about their journey in beekeeping on their blog, We Three Beeks. Sadly, the beeks lost their bees a couple of weeks ago, but they’re dedicated to learning more and trying again. When they do, I’ll be first in line to buy their honey, secure in the knowledge that I know where it came from, I know what’s in it, and I know that it benefits not only my table and my friends, but my community and my local economy as well.

Climbing off the Soapbox

It’s lonely up here. I wouldn’t recommend it.

I’m a little worried I’ve been too dogmatic on Shop Small lately. While I’m passionately against the practices of certain companies (ahem, Amazon), I don’t think we have to cut out corporations entirely. It’s true that we have a broken economy, and I think it’s sad that so little money circulates within our local community. But I don’t think we’ve reached a point where extremism is the only answer.

We need to shift our habits, but we don’t have to completely rehaul them. If you choose local shops first, and save big box shopping for those times when you can’t find something locally or when it’s truly inconvenient, I think you’ll find that shopping small is a lot cheaper and easier than you might have guessed. You’ll be benefiting your community while putting forth very little effort, and without climbing onto a soapbox.

We also have to become more educated consumers to determine which big box shops we avoid at all costs (for me, that’s Amazon and Walmart), and which ones do an okay job of taking care of their suppliers and their employees (for me, that’s Starbucks and Whole Foods).

This research does take a little effort, but it has an unexpected benefit, at least for me — when I’m more connected to where I’m spending my money, I become more aware of how I’m spending it, and how I can save it. Instead of feeling like my bank account is something separate and scary, it’s become a tool that I use to make my community, and my life, better. It’s a small shift in thinking that’s had big impact for me personally, and it’s probably the most important benefit this year of small shopping has had on my life.

Are you ready to shift your thinking and try shopping small? I wrote a little article for Weld about my reasons to Shop Small for the holidays. Filling your stockings with locally bought presents just might be the best gift we can give our community this Christmas.

You Say Competitive, I Say Cutthroat

To make sure they’re undercutting every competitor as much as possible, Amazon has announced a new plan to keep their prices low. They’re paying people ($5 a pop, up to three times) to go into any brick-and-mortar store, scan the bar code of an item with a smart phone, and tell Amazon what the price is, so they can beat it.

As customers, this sounds great. Why shouldn’t we want to save money? And shouldn’t we really be angry at those shops that don’t lower their prices, that greedily pocket more of our hard earned cash?

First, know that, in most cases, your local shops aren’t making all that much of a profit. We pay more for our goods in the first place because we can’t strong arm our suppliers. And we pay a higher percentage of taxes because we can’t afford to pay accountants to find loopholes in the law. Also, we tend to pay our employees better wages and often provide things like health insurance. Then there’s the fact that independents usually donate an incredible amount to charities in our communities, much more than large corporations do. All those costs can really add up, leaving less opportunity for us to provide discounts.

Second, think about why companies like Amazon and Walmart can offer such incredible discounts, often cutting into the actual cost of manufacturing the item. Buying in bulk and circumventing the law helps, but it doesn’t account for the dramatic differences we often see. Usually, your low prices come from a combination of these factors:

  • Low Quality: You think you’re getting the exact same product, whether you buy if from a local shop or from Amazon. And, today, you are. But corporate giants get their wholesale prices low in part by squeezing their suppliers to make their bills lower on the back end. Often, the only way a company can cut the cost is to cut the quality of the product itself. So Amazon’s low prices today mean lower quality for everyone in the long run.
  • Bait and Switch: Once these companies kill their competition, there’s nothing stopping them from raising their prices again. You think they won’t? Remember, Amazon is asking you to spy for them, to steal information from their competitors, and to effectively funnel money away from your community. Don’t expect them to act ethically tomorrow when they’re showing nothing but greed today.

  • Impulse Buys: When a company provides an item, like the Kindle, for less than cost, it’s because they’re certain they’ll make up the money later. Amazon knows it’ll make up the manufacturing costs of Kindle, because they’ve forced their customers to buy eBooks only from them, stealing the freedom to choose. And Walmart and Amazon both know that, if they “save” you enough money, you’ll almost always add more items to your cart. It’s true that you’ll get more for your money. But your budget will still take a hit.
  • Quality of Life: Who pays the price when you save? Often, it’s employees. Labor is one of the biggest expenses for almost any retail business, and it can be the easiest to cut. It’s worth looking into — if a company slashes prices, did it also just cut health insurance? Does it deny its employees 401Ks? Does it discriminate against women as a matter of policy, or shuffle hours so employees don’t qualify for health care and overtime, as Walmart does?

I believe in the free market, but I don’t believe in competition without consequences. Nobody wins when a company takes a step like this one to directly undermine small businesses, to undercut suppliers and employees. As consumers, it’s time to insist that companies fight fair, to stand up for ourselves, our communities, and our local and national economy. It’s time to spend the extra $50 for our flat screens, the extra $.50 for our lattes, the extra time it takes to swing by a local grocery or market — because we know that the extra money works to better our neighborhoods, our schools and our economy.

It’s time to boycott Amazon, and stand up for ourselves.

Note: I own a small business, but, since I don’t discount, there’s very little chance that I’ll actually be hurt by this latest Amazon strategy. It doesn’t upset me because it hurts my business; it upsets me because it hurts my community.

Me + Taco Mama: Meant to be?

I love when something is so perfectly tailored to my life that I feel like it was made just for me. In high school, I got that feeling when Angela from My So-Called Life discovered hair dye, the Violent Femmes and the beauty of leaning around the same time I did. And when Netflix came up with their revolutionary DVD-by-mail concept just when I ditched my TV/VCR for a computer, I thought the company was heaven-sent.

I had this feeling of perfection again, just last week … about a taco place. See, since I own a business, I’m generally tied to my store for at least 12 hours a day. Sometimes, I remember to bring lunch (and breakfast, and dinner). Usually, I don’t. And there are only a handful of quick, locally owned lunch places in Crestline Village.

Enter Taco Mama. They’re local, they’re fast (both times I went, they were totally packed but still got my food to my table within 10 minutes), and the food is good. They have basic offerings like build-your-own burritos and tacos, plus a few pre-designed meals to choose from. I got the Treehugger, which is a burrito made without meat, cheese or sour cream. Even I, a decade-long vegetarian, thought that sounded pretty gross … but Taco Mama somehow made it into something delicious.

Even more perfect (for me, anyway), Taco Mama has a bar, and they’re open late (at least, late for Mountain Brook): 9 p.m. most days and 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. So, even when I end up working nights at my shop, I can still walk down the sidewalk to grab dinner.

Does this mean Taco Mama and I are soulmates? Probably not. Maybe I’m being overly sappy, but I hope my soulmate is a little more … well … human. But it sure does make for the perfect lunch date.

Life after Shop Small: Searching for Balance

Woo-ee-ooo, I look just like Buddy Holly … 3D glasses make me into a hipster! (Do hipsters quote Weezer? I kind of doubt it.)

Shop Small is a blog about a year of my life when I make every single purchase locally … kind of. Since I made up the project and the rules, I gave myself a loophole — three “wishes” a month that I could use to buy from big box stores in case of an emergency.*

I used a wish last night, but, in this case, the “emergency” was a movie. I’d heard amazing things about the movie Hugo, and it’s not playing at our local theater, The Edge. So I left my blog rules at the door, grabbed a couple of friends and a pair of 3D glasses, and spent a few hours watching Hollywood magic in the cushy armchair seats** the Vestavia Rave. I felt a little bad about cheating on The Edge, but I did enjoy the movie (here’s my review).

And I’m not feeling too guilty, because I think this process — thinking locally first, and using big box stores as a backup plan — is a great strategy even after my Shop Small project is over at the end of the year. Before I started this blog, I bought from big box stores without a second thought, shopping locally only as an afterthought or a last resort. By simply reversing that thought process, I’ll do a lot of good for the local economy, even without totally banning corporately owned stores.

That kind of positive economic impact is something our state, and our country, badly needs. And that makes me think that finding a balance is worth it, even if it means shifting the way I think about shopping.

* I hardly ever use these wishes — most months, I haven’t used any. I’ve only used three wishes once (I spent those on movies, too).

** The seats were comfortable, but the frigid, North Pole-esque environment was not. Seriously, Rave … $13.50 for a movie, and you can’t turn on the heat?

Corporate America Gets Jolly & Bright

Corporate elves love sales! (Why were my sister and I dressed like elves with skirts made of scavenged Starbucks sales tablecloths? Um, long story.)

I love shopping small, and I’ve really enjoyed the past 11 months of buying locally. But frankly, during Christmas, it’s kind of bumming me out.

When it comes to holiday decorations, “the more the merrier” seems to be the order of the day, and local stores often don’t have the budget or the marketing and design teams to really deck the halls the way corporate giants do. Logically, I know that small shops have a lot to offer, and it shouldn’t matter if the holiday decorations are in your face — but part of me (the part that loves watching the movie Elf) likes the jingle bell sales, the candy-cane-striped tissue paper, and even (gasp) the Starbucks holiday red cup.

Last week, I went window shopping at The Summit with my best friend Leah. We both had a good time, and the company was great, but I was a little jealous when she got to fill her basket with cute little stocking stuffers at Urban Outfitters, while I kept myself busy checking Twitter on my phone. Basically, I missed the feeling of euphoria that I usually get from The Summit at Christmas — the feeling that maybe I’ll be able to turn my credit card into extra-special gifts that my family deserves and will love me even more for buying.

On the other hand, that euphoric feeling was a lot of hype and not much substance. The fact is, when I shop at a local store, I’m not only getting a gift for my family, I’m also giving back to my community and to the national economy. I know that it’s not expensive presents that make my family love me; it’s my presence itself (emotional pun — groan!). And when I think about how big box stores tend to mistreat their employees and suppliers in order to provide those discounts they’re always bragging about, the big box holiday lights start to lose their twinkle.

Even at the end of the year when I can go back to big box shopping, I don’t think I will … but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it. Until that feeling goes away, I’ll enjoy the benefits of a locally bought Christmas list — no lines, friendly staff, delicious coffee (the great taste makes up for the fact that the cup isn’t color-coded for merriment), and the knowledge that my money is making my world, and the world of the people I love, a little better, and just a little closer to a feeling of Peace on Earth … or, at least, peace from the holiday hysteria of the Galleria.