This post is written by Ben Norton and originally appeared on LinkedIn.
I’m working from home (no sh*t Ben) so this means that I’m finding it hard to avoid those DIY jobs that have been outstanding for some time. It’s also worth noting that I live and work in London. South London for the former and North for the latter (those Londoners reading this will appreciate the specifics).
This weekend we started to excavate our front garden (a project of Channel Tunnel proportions) so I needed to renovate my chainsaw to remove a particularly recalcitrant tree root. Simple enough, you might think. Just some petrol (gas), some 2 stroke and chain oil, and a blade sharpener.
First stop? Halford’s. Using their click & collect I got everything I needed, apart from the sharpener. This led me into the clutches of Amazon where I quickly found all I needed, and after a bit of budget balancing and calculations on delivery times etcetera, I decided to order everything from Amazon (shock).
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s a pattern that we’ve all gone through a million times pre-pandemic. For me, Amazon is often — if not always — a reluctant final option. With hindsight I could have used Halford’s click & collect service and just bought the sharpener from Amazon, or even Toolstation. But what I’ve done is line the pockets of a faceless global monolith once more. So, am I a secret Marxist deep undercover in consumer marketing consulting?
Let me try and explain.
In the current climate, where small and medium (read: “not vast and with unlimited access to low interest cash”) businesses are either struggling or have had to shut up shop completely, my consumer journey outlined above is close to inhumane behavior. Amazon is the result of our addiction to convenience and the reality of exceedingly cheap corporate finance’s recent obsession with “scale” above profitability. Pardon me, but it doesn’t give a **** about local taxation legislation, or your friends, your family; and even directly targets small businesses trying to sell goods online.
But this isn’t an assassination of Amazon, this is their strategy and it certainly seems to be working out thus far (not to mention my hypocrisy of the highest order as I watch their media content, and my chainsaw will be buzzing this weekend courtesy of them). Neither is this a little England manifesto or Brexit agenda piece. I am very happy to give my money to the “right” retailer or brand regardless of geographic reach.
However, given the challenges we face today, and in particular, how these relate to small- and medium-sized businesses attempting to sell goods online, this becomes more about social responsibility and updating our measure of what “right” is. If we don’t support our “local” (or at least national) economy, and by extension our local community in the short and medium term, then all that will be left for us on the other side of all this is Prime delivery. I, for one, think this would be a huge loss to our diversity, economy, and humanity.
While I’m ranting, let’s look at this from a product perspective, as well as a retailer one. My wife and I prefer a certain brand of coffee (I’m not going to name it here because, frankly I don’t want anyone else to buy any more of it) and we visit Sainsbury’s in the hope there will be some left on the shelves. Our UK supermarkets are excelling in this time, stepping up and providing vital service to local communities despite their national reach.
But here’s a thought: I could get my coffee for around 50p ($0.62, €0.57 at the time of writing) more per pack from a local and extremely high quality roaster (volcanocoffeeworks.com) who would also deliver it to me, but like many of us, my neural pathways have been carved to always send me to supermarkets rather than seek specialists or artisans who undoubtedly care more about the product they are producing than any of the (effectively empty) brand promises you see on other mass produced items.
The same applies to meat (apologies to all vegans and vegetarians reading this) where a West London wholesale delivery firm (hgwalter.com) has recently pivoted its services to be able to deliver to private individuals, not to mention the excellent Halal butchers that sit on most south London high streets and are not typically considered by your average non-Muslim shopper (me) as an option.
My final word on the product piece relates to Marmite. I’m a “love it” guy and as such have always bought the largest jar available. Those of you in the Marmite camp will be intimately acquainted with its adhesive qualities (I am sure it has a light industrial application beyond its current use) so the squeezy bottles marketed by parent company Unilever seemed like a no-brainer when the shelves were empty of the large jars during the initial toilet roll rush of 2 weeks ago. The problem is they don’t work. Nearly 1/4 of the aforementioned substance is left in the squeezy bottle at the end, requiring an intricate balancing act in order to extract the remaining goop. I can’t see a scenario where a locally produced product would launch this type of packaging with the knowledge that it meant a significant amount of it could not be consumed by the customer who had paid for it. The cynical view here is that as long as people pay for the product, who cares if they can use it? Again, in times like this, I’m not sure this revenue-only approach is acceptable…
So, what’s my conclusion to all this? Am I putting local produce and retail on a pedestal like some kind of global economic Luddite? I hope not (although at my age it’s a distinct possibility). What I hope I’m doing is questioning our addiction to small price differences and unnecessarily quick distribution at the expense of local or just small-scale producers and retailers at a time when keeping them going is more than a quaint past-time, but a global economic necessity. If we’re going to have choice and texture in our produce and retail in the future, we need to vote with our clicks.