Toys ‘R Us started its going out of business sale recently. Of course, we don’t have a Toys ‘R Us in Robeson County. We don’t have any toy store. We no longer have a record store or a book store or an electronics store. This loss of stores isn’t restricted to Robeson County; it is happening nationwide.
I was dean of the School of Business at UNC Pembroke when Walmart opened a supercenter in Pembroke. There was great concern at the time that Walmart would put small companies in Pembroke out of business. The faculty of the Business School was ready to assist any company that felt threatened by Walmart. Fortunately, the business mix in Pembroke mostly differed from Walmart’s. One business that had some overlap was True Value Hardware, which took the bold step of greatly expanding in the face of Walmart opening and they appear to have done well since then.
Across the country communities have often “fought” the opening of a Walmart store. However, the communities had their sites on the wrong target. What is actually killing communities today is Amazon, not Walmart. Yet, to my knowledge, no politician in any community has ever objected to, or even raised a concern about what Amazon has done to communities all over America.
We all need to realize that we strengthen our community when we spend our money locally, and even if unintentionally, we weaken our community when we send our dollars to another (likely, wealthier) community. Consequently, Amazon and other online retailers have caused considerable increases in income inequality in America.
I encourage each of us to spend our money as locally as possible. If you live in Fairmont, try to spend your money in town. Only go to Lumberton for items not available in Lumberton. If you live in Lumberton, only go to Fayetteville or Raleigh for items not available locally. Obviously, this poses some tradeoffs. Online, the selection is massive and the prices might be better. As noted above, though, if you purchase online, you are reducing jobs in your town. Think about this. You are probably reducing the value of your home too. You may be saving a small amount of money on purchases, but losing a big amount of money for your community and yourself.
There are other costs to our pocketbooks and environment to consider. I know several people who will drive to Raleigh to shop. That may be necessary if the product, style, etc. you want isn’t available nearer. However, there are costs out of your pocket for traveling to Fayetteville or anywhere out of town. It is about 36 miles from City Hall in Lumberton to Cross Creek Mall. The federal government estimates that it costs 54.5 cents each mile you drive. So that round trip costs you $39. You need to save quite a bit of money while shopping to make up for that.
Finally, consider the environment. Many online retailers provide “free” shipping. Usually, you have to spend a certain dollar amount to achieve free shipping. I know more than once I added to my shopping cart something I didn’t really need just to quality for free shipping. Then, a large FedEx truck makes a special trip to my house just to deliver one or two items to me. Such special trips are very bad for the environment.
In short, while it is incredibly convenient and seems to be saving money, think deeply about the true costs of online (and out-of-town) shopping. Otherwise, which types of stores will disappear from Robeson County next?
Eric Dent, a former professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, now teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University.