Chinese Checkers (and everything else)

My end-of-the-year rant.

Earlier this week several local newspapers carried  an AP story by William Foreman on China’s booming economy. He begins by pointing out that hundreds of US manhole covers were stolen all over the country and sold on the black market to be made into steel for Chinese skyscrapers. Thank goodness! I didn’t think we were exporting anything to China anymore.

Foreman points out that China is one of the biggest investors in Africa.  Of course we all know that the Communist nation holds billions of dollars of US debt ($800 billion in Treasury securities) which may prove to be disastrous sooner, if not later.

China’s telephone company has more than 1/2 billion customers and 338 million Internet users, more than the entire population of the United States (307 million).

China’s new-found prosperity has led it to become the biggest polluter on the planet.  The article points out that 16 of the 20 worst cities for air quality are located in China.  So while the United States is looking to spend billions of dollars cleaning up the air, both here and in developing countries abroad, China just keeps on polluting and taking American jobs in the process.

Meanwhile our insatiable desire for the cheapest price on everything continues to fuel the Chinese engine while our own is sputtering to a stop.  Will the two giant Chrysler plants in suburban Saint Louis ever reopen?  Probably not unless a foreign (possibly Chinese) company buys them.  Have we passed the point of no return?  I hope not but a lot of things are going to have to change pretty quickly.

People (American people, that is) have got to learn that it’s not cheaper to buy a cheap Chinese product that doesn’t work properly and doesn’t last.  It’s more expensive in the long run and that’s just in out-of-pocket expense.  It doesn’t take into account the loss of jobs and the selling off of the American dream that’s taking place today.

It’s pretty obvious that we can’t count on our government to help us.  In fact any kind of tariff on Chinese goods could cause them to retaliate which wouldn’t be good.  (Remember that $800 billion in Treasuries that they hold.)  So, while an official boycott may not be in order, there’s nothing stopping you and me from individually avoiding their stuff.

No, you and I are the answer.  Don’t buy cheap Chinese crap! Spend an extra buck and get American-made quality.  Of course the real problem lies in the products that are no longer made in the USA.  The list is quite long.  Try to find an American-made sewing machine.  Let me know how that works out for ya.

But we have to start wherever we can.  Buy American cars (while you still can).  For crying out loud, if the Chinese attempt to penetrate the US automotive market (which they probably will very soon) don’t buy one! Even the Chinese don’t like Chinese cars.  Anything else you buy, look for an American label.  If you can’t find one, ask the retailer why not.  We’re all in business to satisfy our customers.  If there’s a demand for American-made widgets then the market will satisfy the demand.

I don’t want go on too long and I don’t want to give the impression that I think things are hopeless.  Far from it!  We’re about to begin a new year and a new decade.  It’s time for all of us to stop being selfish and/or foolish and recognize that this is the greatest country in the world and we can overcome anything.  We just have to get of our backsides and make something happen.

Thanks for putting up with my rant.  Here’s wishing you a very, very

Happy New Year!

2009

2010

Come back tomorrow and I’ll wrap up the year by telling you about my experiences in buying Chinese.

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Buying Locally–Are There Limits?

A regular reader and former coworker emailed me over the weekend with an interesting question about buying locally.  He asked, “At what point is price an issue?” He cited a couple of recent instances where he paid more to buy something locally rather than buying it online.  The price difference wasn’t enough to be a problem, but is there a point where price trumps doing business with a neighbor? It’s not unlike the question, “Can you be a little bit pregnant?”

The question raises still more questions!

Aren’t some mail order businesses run by independent business people? In the past I have written good things about Heather Gorringe and her “Wiggly Wigglers” online gardening business. (A Small Business Owner Who Knows How to Use Social Media. A Big Award for Wiggly Wigglers) You can’t lump her into the same category as Amazon.com.  I’d buy from Wigglers if I were into gardening (and if she weren’t in England, making shipping very expensive.)  It’s a global mom-and-pop operation, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

What does “local” mean? Here in Saint Louis, at least until last year, Anheuser-Busch was a local business.  Was I supporting local business by buying Budweiser?  Yes I was.  But what about local micro-breweries?  Wouldn’t drinking a beer from Schlafley (a local micro) be more in line with a Buy Local philosophy?  And what about Guinness which is unique and only brewed in Ireland?

Then there’s the issue of determining what’s local and what’s not.  McDonald’s is a national chain, but the individual stores are locally owned. Then again, all of their raw materials come from McDonald corporate.   On the other hand, there are some similar operations, like White Castle, where the company owns all the stores.  How many people know that?  How do you know which is which?  Given the addictive taste of a White Castle burger, and their low cost, does it really matter if I eat there?  Like Mickey D’s, they bring the stuff in from out of town.

Does buy local trump buy American? Chances are that you’ll be more likely to find American-made items at your local hardware store rather than at Lowes or Home Depot.  But, what if you don’t?  What if the chain has an American-made drill and everything at the local True Value is made in China?  Which is the better choice?

bookstoreWhat about unique items? Again, the local merchant is more likely to have the really unique items, but not always.  Books are a good example.  Sometimes the only place to find an off-beat book is at Amazon.com.  Let’s say that the local book store (if you can find one) doesn’t have the book, but can order it for you.  It will cost $50.00 and take two weeks.  Amazon can get you the same book in two days and it will cost you $40.00 (including shipping and handling).  And you need the book for an important project that’s due in a week.

This one is pretty easy.  You have to go with Amazon because of the deadline.  But what if there is no deadline.  What if you just want to read the book?  Is it worth ten more dollars and twelve more days to support the local business?  Nobody said this was going to be easy.

Buying locally takes some effort.  But it’s worth it.  You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have a vested interest.  If you want your friends and neighbors to do with business with you, you have to do business with them.  It’s as simple as that.  That’s the short-term answer.

Long term, if you want to have a neighborhood hardware store hardware-storeto answer your questions, and to have the part for your twenty-year-old lawn mower in stock, then you’d better do your part in keeping them around.

A lot is being written and said about economic stimulus.  I’m not an economist, but I do think that stimulating the national, and even the world, economy starts with stimulating the local economy.  We all know that small business is responsible for the lion’s share of jobs in the United States.  A sign of a healthy economy is a lot of “help wanted” signs in the windows of our local stores and restaurants.  We can make that happen.

I just realized that I’ve written quite a bit, 698 words and counting, and haven’t answered the question, “At what point is price an issue?” First, I think you have to look at value rather than price.  And value includes the services and potential services that the local business offers.  What looks like a better price may not be.  In the case of on-line purchases, have you considered shipping and handling?  What about the hassle of receiving the merchandise (for example, taking off work to be home when the package is delivered) and the possible hassle of returning something that isn’t right?  Can you trust the vendor to deliver the product as ordered?  All of these come at a price.

If you’re comparing a local store versus a chain, are you comparing apples to apples.  The big guys often have products that are built to their spec, which may not be your spec.  An items that’s ten percent cheaper but wears out twice as fast as a similar one isn’t much of a bargain, is it?

If an item requires assembly or technical knowledge to operate, who’s going to help you out if you have problems, the “helpful hardware man” or the guy in the blue smock who just started to work yesterday?

To wrap this up, you have to make up your own mind what you value and what you don’t.  Everything has a price.  You get what you pay for.  (Insert your own cliche here.)

As a business person you might want to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  But what about your customers?  How do we get them on the “buy local” bandwagon?  It’s all about education.  Show them why your product is worth more than your big box or out-of-town competitors.  Use in-store signage, advertising, your web site, and your presence on social media (you are on social media, aren’t you?) to tell them why it’s in their best interest to buy from you.  Because, when all is said and done, people do what’s in their best interest, not yours.

I’d especially welcome comments on this important topic.