my friend the burnout: when buying local leads to dissatisfaction

A friend of mine drank the “buy local” kool-aid that I’ve been pushing on this blog and elsewhere. Convinced that she could have a genuine impact on the town in which she lives by choosing local options when they exist, she went out and started doing something about it. And, from what she tells me, it was empowering. It was perfect… at least for a while.

Every time she spent a dollar at a local coffee house instead of at Starbucks, she felt great. There was this surge of happiness as she envisioned the dollars spent there circulating back through the same local economy several times over. She thought about the people she was supporting and how they in turn would support others. With each swig of locally roasted and brewed coffee, she thought about the local accountants, bankers and attorneys who counted the owner of the coffee shop as a client. And she thought about all of their bright-eyed little kids going off to public school, making it better in the process. She thought about the other entrepreneurially-inclined individuals in town who, seeing what was happening, might choose to increase their involvement, possibly opening shops of their own, or holding events like our Shadow Art Fair. From her perspective, there was no end to what could be accomplished.

So, her involvement in the community grew, and she started getting others involved. She could feel that a movement was growing, and it made her happy. Her town, at least in her eyes, was becoming a better place, and she felt as though she was instrumental in making that happen.

As we all know, however, all good things must come to an end. It was inevitable, but at some point she started losing faith. I don’t want to get into all the details here, but let’s just say that the closer she got to local business people, the less she felt like idolizing them. Over the last few months, the petty jealousies between them started to emerge. And she began hearing stories from friends about business practices that didn’t sound altogether kosher. There were stories of employees being harassed and questionable accounting practices. She managed to keep it all in perspective and stay positive about it, though, until a locally owned auto shop tried to rip her off a few days ago… That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Although she had gotten great service from a mechanic at a franchise of a national chain garage for years, she found out about an independent garage that was closer to her house and decided to give them a chance. After taking her car there for an oil change, she was told that she was in dire need of new brake pads. Since the estimate they gave her seemed high, she decided to get a second estimate from the franchise. An hour after dropping the car off, she got a call from her trusted mechanic – her brake pads, while not brand new, had maybe 10,000 miles left before they needed replacing. The owner of the independent shop had told her they were basically gone, that she was taking her life in her own hands if she left without having the work done.

Sure, he could have misread the pads, but my guess — and hers — is that he lied in hopes of milking her for a few more dollars. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality of the situation. Buying local, as many of us have pointed out here, is not in itself a cure for all that ails us. There are bad local business owners wherever you go, and there always will be. Unfortunately, you come face-to-face with them when you shop at a locally-owned store, whereas at a nation chain they remain hidden. Some people lie, cheat and steal. My advice to my friend, however, is not to give up on her town, but to keep patronizing those businesses that she’s had good experiences at, and continuing to try others when the opportunity presents itself… Buying local doesn’t mean buying stupid. It doesn’t mean supporting local shops when it’s foolish to do so.

And, to local businesses here and elsewhere, I offer this piece of advice… If people in your community are, as we are here in Ypsi, trying to evangelize and build a “buy local” movement, then the least that you can do is to meet them halfway. If you don’t, I’m afraid that the movement will be short-lived. The goodwill won’t last forever, and sooner or later, unless you’re providing good, honest service at a fair price, the whole “buy local” campaign will dry up and blow away. And, it’s in all of our best interests to see that this doesn’t happen. (I’m not suggesting that business owners necessarily police one another, but the guy who owns the coffee shop needs to realize that he’s being affected by the person next door who is ripping people off, etc.)

So, what does this mean in terms of Ypsi. Well, I just had a beer with Brian Cors, the fellow who launched and I think we’re in agreement that we (those of us providing content) are not doing anyone any favors if we gloss over the negative things in our community. So, from now on, we’re thinking that the editorial voice of the site will be a bit less cheerleaderish. Don’t get me wrong, we still want to stay positive. Primarily, we want to share good news about our community, such as tips as to where one can find good deals and good service, however, from now on, I don’t think we’ll be so quick to shy away from mentioning where a business owner might be able to do a better job. For instance, I think it’s fair to say something along the lines of… “I love the burgers at Restaurant X, but I’ve noticed over the past year or so that the quality of their pizza has been steadily decreasing. As a result, I generally buy pizza from Restaurant Y. Hopefully Restaurant X gets their act together. I’ll be checking back in January to see what it’s like. In the meantime, if you have thoughts on their pizza, or any other menu items, leave a comment.” Sound fair enough?

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  1. sstrudeau
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    “So, from now on, we

  2. Lisele
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    O god yes. It’s not about promoting Ypsi by any means necessary. I like the power of the unflinching gaze. I also like the positive slant, though, since just trashing indiscriminately is so easy: there will ALWAYS be something negative to find. Yet we actually DO have some cool places to patronize in Ypsi.

  3. mark
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    When we were first talking with Brian about launching the Downtown Ypsi site, I think our concern was that it could too easily turn toward Ypsi-bashing, and we didn’t want to see that… With all due respect to Ann Arbor is Overrated, I don’t think that any of us felt it was necessary to have a site like that one here. People, I think we’d all agree, are critical enough about Ypsi. (Ann Arbor, conversely, suffers from an opposite infliction. The recipient of too much good press, they, quite frankly, needed someone like AAiO to come along and deflate things a bit.) So, my hope – and I think that Brian agrees – is that we’d move a bit more in that direction, without going too far. It’s not going to be a huge shift, but I suspect it will be noticeable. As I said in the post, we’re not doing anyone any favors by ignoring the negative. Hopefully we’ll b e able to walk the line responsibly though. And, if we don’t, on occasion, we need the readers to call us on it.

  4. mark
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I don’t have a problem with being a cheerleader for Ypsi, Scott. We need as many as we can get. And I hope the site still serves that purpose. People need to know about the good stuff we have to offer. And we need to do whatever it takes to make our downtown viable. With that said, however, we can’t turn a blind eye to the reality of the situation. Some businesses could be better, and some landlords need to be held to task.

  5. briancors
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    ‘Good. When you launched it I thought it sounded a little too “ra ra.”‘

    I’ve been called a lot worse than “ra-ra”, I am sure – but that’s not what the site is all about. But it is part of it. Heh.

    I started the site out in order to be a collective space where people that live, work, and play in downtown Ypsi can come together, contribute, and talk about life and times here. So far, it’s been great – and I am actively looking for others to write content on the “blog” part of the site.

    I am also thinking about starting up a discussion forum, in addition to the blog. Blogs are great – don’t get me wrong. But they don’t afford the level of transparency and interaction that I am looking for. With blogs, only “approved” people can post new entries, and only after an new entry is posted, then others can hop into the mix and leave comments.

    While doing as many things as we can locally is great for local businesses, there are always going to be “stinkers” in the bunch, as proven by this person’s experience with her auto service establishment. I think that by reporting about these “bad” experiences [be it a sketchy auto service place, or a restaurant who had really good service, but now isn’t as great] – that we have the chance to let business owners know that we are paying attention. And perhaps they will see these discussions online, maybe even respond to them personally – and make some changes if needed.

    In addition, I don’t think that we do ourselves any favors if becomes a “Ypsi rules, Ann Arbor sucks” venue. A big beef that a lot of people have about Ann Arbor is that the people there are stuffy, self-righteous, and in their own little isolated world. Why then, would we want to mimic that elitist attitude in Ypsilanti in slagging Ann Arbor all of the time? I don’t think it’s constructive.

    We all have our reasons as to why we love/hate Ypsi, and we’re all entitled to them. In fact, I would love to hear about ALL of those reasons – from anyone that wants to participate. I’m looking for more ways to make that happen, and getting more people involved, be it in a discussion group or as writers for the team of “bloggers”.

    So far, it’s been excellent, and I need to thank Karen for working so hard on providing so much content in both the online and “real world”, with the flyers she created, printed, and hand-delivered all over the city about buying locally. And I also need to thank Mark for providing the “fire under the butt” to get the site up and running.

  6. mark
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Any fire in Brian’s butt was of his own making. I just supplied some of the kindling.

  7. UBU
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    “So, from now on, we

  8. mark
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    And just because your store is in Ann Arbor, doesn

  9. Anonymous
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I think having realistic comments on the site makes a lot of sense. As a business owner in Depot Town, I love hearing the praise from customers who love my place, but I also want to hear when customers arent getting the service they should. That kind of feedback helps me improve my business. I have been really lucky in that a lot of my regular customers give me very detailed feedback when they dont get the service they expect, and I have made several changes in staff and how I do training based on these comments. My business also goes through cycles related to the school semesters where the quality of service goes down because I am changing staff or changing the way the shifts work. I am going through one of these right now where almost a third of my staff is moving away, and I am training new people to replace them. For the next couple of weeks there will be lapses in service as the new employees get up to speed. Having a site like this where I can respond to customers directly and change my business to meet their needs will only help me improve the way I do things.

    I also believe it is very important that the businesses in this area work together to improve. It doesnt do me any good to just attract people to my restaurant. Future growth is going to depend on the whole area being more vibrant. As we attract new businesses to downtown and make it a more walkable destination, there is going to be more foot traffic for everyone. People walking through the park to get to downtown are more likely stop at my place either coming or going and that is good for my business. We really are all in this together, and I think there are a lot of businesses and community members that are working hard to make these areas the types of places they want to live and shop.

  10. egpenet
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I miss Connie Crump’s “Crumpette” reviews … because there IS good and bad Hot Sour Soup, and she’d publish when and where the good/bad/ugly was available.

    I’d like to see reviews of good auto service and bad auto service published, as well. I just had my Midas Muffler replaced. The muffler was guaranteed and saved me $80 on the bill. I noticed that other parts (pipes and fittings) had increased in price since my last visit six years ago, but that the installation labor was still $40. I hope they’re paying guys more today than they got six years ago. But I was in and out in less than one hour, and had a wonderful Bomber breakfast while I waited.

    Let’s name names and tell all sides.

  11. Kate
    Posted December 30, 2006 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the idea of having a forum in which we can tell about the good, the bad and the ugly. It will put pressure on people like that auto service place to straighten up and fly right, plus it will give some free publicity to business owners who are doing a good job, but flying under the radar.

    I know when I first moved to Ypsi — and over the years since — I’ve needed to know about reliable auto repair, or who can clean my furnace or fix the drain. I try very hard to “buy local” and I think we have some great places here (Cafe Luwak being a particular favorite of mine), but it’s hard, especially in the area of service and repair, to know where to go and who we can count on. This kind of site could be a real godsend.

  12. Posted January 2, 2007 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    As an outsider, being located in Colorado, I’ve found all of this interesting and read along as it has developed. I think your post makes a very good point about how you should talk about the good and the bad and let the local shop owners know that people are watching. I also noticed, however, that you didn’t mention the name of this locally owned auto shop that seemingly tried to sell your friend the unnecessary brake pads. Is there a reason you held back?

  13. Posted January 5, 2007 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Good question. Here’s your answer:

  14. Time Traveler
    Posted December 15, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Depressing post.

  15. kjc
    Posted December 15, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    seriously. especially cuz that link doesn’t work anymore!

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