Olk Klaverack Santaa

EDITORIAL: Where will you shop?


YOU KNOW THE TUNE, whether it brings warm memories or summons a feeling of dread from endless loops of holiday music frozen in time. So let’s try some new lyrics:

Making a list

Clicking it twice

Gonna buy lots

On my mobile device,

Cause Am-a-zon is coming

To town….

If you buy much of anything, you know that Amazon is already here. Some Postal Service letter carriers spend the first part of their day dropping off packages all over the county, each parcel prominently marked with the Amazon logo. But that’s just the final leg of the company’s reach.

A better example might be what the Times Union described as a million-square-foot fulfillment center that will employ 800 people who will load and unload up to 300 tractor-trailers in the neighboring Town of Schodack just across the Rensselaer County line on Route 9.

It’s a huge project but it shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Walmart has massive warehouse/distribution centers west of Albany and elsewhere in the region. Our stuff has to get here somehow. And it reminds us consumers, if we think about it, how much we value the convenience of mega-merchandisers and the role they play in our quality of life.

The flip side of this argument is the degree to which the convenience of mega-merchandisers crowds out an appreciation of the value of local retailers. You’ve probably heard about how the “good” local stores, where you could buy necessities, have given way to stores selling luxury items that only some folks can afford. Whatever truth there is to that statement, it’s also true that the transition didn’t happen by accident nor did it happen without broad public support. Where this transition stands now is midstream, leaving unresolved questions about the local economy.

There are opportunities in this time of change. And while it sounded dodgy at first, a marketing scheme by American Express has proved successful. The company is in it for the money, no doubt about that. But over the last decade, Amex has stuck with an initiative it introduced called “Small Business Saturday.” The company has promoted it heavily and feedback from merchants gives it positive marks. This year the day falls on November 30.

The idea is easy to grasp. There are lots of places to shop in your neighborhood. Check your screen. They’re closer than you think. There’s Hudson and Greenport, Chatham, Valatie, there’s Hillsdale, New Lebanon, Donder and Blitzen… . Anyway, there are small, local stores to visit in communities identified by names not aisle numbers.

It takes more time to shop this way, unless you count time spent in traffic. The selection isn’t as broad and you’ll have to interact with another human being not related to Amazon, Google or Siri. Most of us have too much to do this season. It’s not practical to give up time at the box store just to poke around small stores one by one. Or is it?

Census data collected in 2016 showed that the whole county had 281 business establishments classified as “retail trade.” But those businesses together accounted for 2,974 paid workers with an annual payroll adding up to $80.8 million. In terms of payroll, the only sector of the county economy that’s larger is “health care and social assistance.”

The Census data don’t show how many retail trade people work for the chain stores on Route 9 compared to those who work for smaller firms. But it’s safe to assume sales by Amazon and other online retailers do relatively little for our economy. Workers employed by the big box stores make a contribution to the tax base and to the community, but profit from local companies is more likely to be reinvested here rather than transferred to a corporation in some distant place.

One reason to live here is the character of our communities. Businesses play a big part in defining that character. When the shoppers of Columbia County support those businesses, they contribute to a stronger countywide community. Is this self-serving logic, coming from a newspaper that depends on local business for advertising revenue? Yes. We have a vested interest in the success of the county’s businesses.

But so does every other resident of the county. And Small Business Saturday–this Saturday–makes it easy to remember how we all can contribute. Please participate.

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