In a recent Facebook discussion, the prickly subject of online shopping became a very heated discussion. People weighed in on either side with the pros and cons of deciding where and how best to spend their hard earned dollars.
Like a majority of my demographic, my own involvement with online shopping is limited. I buy some trinkets and accessories for my motorcycle that are usually not available from my dealer. I must also confess to buying some socks and undies from Mountain Equipment Co-op for a trip last year.
There are other people who shop online a lot, especially for clothing. They obviously feel they are getting a bargain to what they pay locally, or perhaps what they bought was not available in local stores. In my own experience, I have bought shoes that fit ranging from size 8 to 10 depending on the brand so I couldn’t imagine buying any without trying them on, but people do. There is also a lot of new clothing and shoes posted on the buy and sell groups due to them not fitting properly.
Other than price, there are three things I consider when purchasing online. The first is knowledge. I can usually buy a piece of copper pipe at a big box store cheaper than at a specialized supplier. However, if I require knowledge to install that pipe, or need to modify something to be safe or legal, the advice and experience of the person at the specialty store is usually worth the extra price that I might pay for the pipe.
Second is after sale support. More than one customer has been frustrated by damaged or missing parts or complicated assembly instructions. Having the ability to remedy these issues is difficult when connecting with a call centre on the other side of the planet. Worse still, is the frustration of having a product fail or attempting to get something replaced under warranty. The hassle and time of calling, repackaging and shipping it back and waiting for another one is, to me, rarely worth saving a few dollars on the initial purchase.
Final consideration is the quality of the product. I have seen many examples in my own business of accessories purchased for a “great price” only to see poor quality counterfeit goods when they arrive. In some cases, these items don’t last, don’t fit or are even unusable. The unfortunate customer takes the product to a local vendor for satisfaction, only to be told that the product they have bought is counterfeit. Ironically, it’s the local supplier that feels the customer’s wrath when they are made aware of what they have bought. ”They refused to help me” or “they laughed at me” are some comments I’ve seen posted online. Honestly, if the situation were reversed, what would you do?
A troubling trend is the advent of “showrooming”. This occurs where a customer tries something on, or gets specifications or advice from a local store and then uses that information or sizing to purchase something online. Luckily, just as it began to manifest itself, “showrooming” is seemingly giving away to “web rooming” in which a customer shops online, decides what they need and goes to a local store to purchase the product.
Some smart retailers have realized they have a lot to offer, as long as they can integrate offline and digital and trump online competitors on convenience. They use strategies like knowledgeable, attentive staff, in-store pick-up of online orders, in-store Wi-Fi, and digital discounts that nudge showroomers to buy in-store.
Many local businesses will make an effort to match or approach online pricing, provided that they are matching “apples to apples” and that all costs to the end user are included. Costs such as shipping and handling, duties and brokerage fees all need to be part of the discussion when matching an online price. Sometimes, sadly, a small store just can’t match the pricing of online giants, and selling things below cost is a sure way to quickly run a business into the ground.
Is there a moral obligation to try and keep business “local” as much as possible? While certain things can’t be bought here or elsewhere in northwestern B.C., that list of items is pretty small.
Not only are local business people my friends and fellow chamber of commerce members, they are participants in our community. They support sports teams, arts clubs and countless other ventures that make this a better place to live.
Profit is not a dirty word, it’s what pays employee wages and benefits and keeps the lights and the heat on and it’s what enables donations to youth groups and community sponsorships. If there are no sales, there are no profits and no jobs.
Online shopping has its place, and it allows us access to a world of goods and information but consider your choices wisely, ask if the benefits outweigh the effects? Sometimes it’s more than just money that’s at stake.
Terrace resident Steve Smyth is a past director of the Terrace-Kitimat Airport Society, which operates the Northwest Regional Airport, and a current board member of the Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce.