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Protectionism Revisited: Shop Small Saturday and the Modern Buy Local Movement


Consider this more an informative piece for Pundithouse readers rather than an attempt to persuade. If you’re a buy local supporter, great, good for you. If you want to buy all your presents from Amazon this year, good for you too. But in an effort to prepare Pundithouse readers to be inundated with #shopsmall hashtags and Facebook updates and Instagrams over the next few days, I decided to share a few thoughts on Shop Small Saturday. (Actually, you should probably just save some time and read this piece by Max Borders at FEE that covers this topic much better than my attempt below.)

Business owners start businesses to serve their fellow man and to hopefully earn a profit while doing so. Now I only earned a degree in Political Science and I’ve never owned a business, but I don’t think you need a degree in Business or Finance to understand that businesses must make money to exist. This maxim holds true whether you’re a small, local business (like the very website hosting this article) or a national retailer with “big-box” stores in every city in America. If a small business owner can convince the customer of a national retailer to patronize their store instead, the small business earns more profit. Combine the profit motive of a small business owner (that’s right, even small business owners desire to make a profit!) with a little tribalism and the result is “Shop Small Saturday.”

Shop Small Saturday (“SSS”) is a marketing ploy developed in 2010 and promoted by well-known small business American Express to encourage more people to use their American Express cards while doing some holiday shopping at a local small business. It takes place annually on the Saturday between “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday.” I happened upon SSS and the #shopsmall hashtag while on Twitter two years ago and have been watching with vexation as the phenomenon has grown in popularity ever since.

SSS is merely a modern day buy local effort tailor made for social media. It’s not a traditional protectionist scheme since it doesn’t employ government force to eliminate competition; rather, it blends widespread ignorance of basic economics with the human desire for approval to achieve the same ends. Who wouldn’t retweet or “like” a message on their social media outlet of choice that encouraged patronizing a local mom & pop store over a national retailer like Walmart (boo Walmart!!), especially if by doing so more money stayed in the local economy! And how do you know that more money stays in the local economy ($68 vs. $43) if you shop at a local store versus a big box? Well, because science and the internets told me so based on some study done years ago that didn’t even use data from my city and that uses questionable methodology at best. Good luck finding one of these studies, by the way, most links online lead to an Error 404 – Page Not Found – dead page. For example.

Unfortunately, business owners since time immemorial have sought to use the power of government to increase their profit earning opportunities while limiting the ability of their competitors, both domestically and internationally, to compete for a share of those profits. While SSS is not (yet) using the force of government to limit competition in a traditional sense, just look to any number of towns and cities to find examples of government using taxpayer dollars to promote this economic nonsense. The Town of Davidson employs a nifty slogan, “Turn Around, Shop in Town,” to shame locals who venture outside of Davidson’s main street to purchase Christmas gifts. Huntersville officially endorses Shop Small Saturday and the Mayor issues a proclamation in support every year. The City of Charlotte even produced a video with former Mayor Foxx touting the benefits of shopping locally, luckily only 126 people have viewed it thus far…

If you’re so inclined to challenge the premise of SSS on social media or during Thanksgiving Dinner this week, here are a few questions I usually pose to supporters. How can you be certain your dollars spent at a local business remain local? Why does keeping money in the local economy provide more benefits than if that money were spent elsewhere? Doesn’t the local Walmart/Home Depot/Best Buy, etc. employ hundreds of local residents, and, if so, won’t they lose their jobs if we all abstain from shopping there? How local is local? What if it costs more to buy the same items locally that I could have purchased for much less at a large retailer, how much of my limited income should I sacrifice to benefit a local business? Should people living in Huntersville only shop in Huntersville this Christmas season? What if a Pineville resident chooses to patronize North Carolina’s largest tourism attraction, Concord Mills Mall, on Black Friday instead of trying to meet all of their shopping needs in downtown Pineville, does that make them a bad Pineville resident who should be subjected to public ridicule and ostracization?

Why by the SSS grinch, you may ask? Why not just allow the proponents of SSS feel good about themselves and preen online with their hashtags and updates and instagrams? Because ideas matter and this idea is influencing public policy and resulting in tax dollars being spent to promote a flawed premise. Taking money by force from taxpayers to benefit a select few by promoting their local business is not a core function of government. I’m pro-market, not pro-certain businesses that support my re-election effort. You should patronize the retailer of your choice this weekend based on your specific values and financial situation, but not because of some feeling of shame or guilt or because of some misinformation campaign designed to make you shop at one store versus another.



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