Slow Shopping for the Modern Age

Early morning in downtown Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, Canada

Lloyd Alter

The Internet is a surprisingly powerful tool for shopping locally.

At the beginning of 2020, I began a Buy Nothing New challenge, which meant everything I purchased this year had to be second-hand. The challenge went well for the first two months, but then came to an abrupt end in March, with the rise of the coronavirus and closures of all non-essential stores in my community. Suddenly the thrift stores that I visited for clothing and home furnishings were shut down.

I found myself facing a dilemma. I could continue to buy second-hand items on the Internet and have them shipped to my house as needed, or I could buy directly from local businesses that may have had to close down their storefronts, due to social distancing regulations, but still have robust supply chains and stocked shelves behind closed doors. I preferred the latter, as it meant my money would go straight into the hands of friends and neighbors who need it more than ever now.

Online shopping in a small town

That is how I began my unexpected foray into the world of "slow shopping for the modern age", as fellow writer Lloyd Alter described it when I told him this story. Over the few weeks, I have made a few necessary purchases. One was for my son's upcoming birthday. I sent a Facebook message to the local toy store to inquire about a specific toy I was looking for. The owner responded immediately with pictures of various options and suggestions for similar items. After several exchanges, we settled on a stomp rocket and a dinosaur coloring kit. I e-transferred the money and he dropped it off at my back door the following morning.

A day later, I realized I hadn't yet bought any Easter chocolate for my kids, so I visited the Facebook page of a local chocolate shop. It listed several bunnies and foil-wrapped eggs, which I then ordered over Messenger. I received a call back, my credit card number was taken, and I was given a pickup time slot. When I arrived, an arm reached out the door, set my order on a stool, and I took it home.

Then I realized on Good Friday that I no longer had any bread pans, as my husband had thrown out the old rusty ones, and I was ready to start making Easter bread with my kids. Being a statutory holiday in Canada, there was nowhere to go for new pans except Walmart (which I avoid like the plague, even more so when there are lineups to enter the store). So I sent a Facebook message to the owners of a boutique kitchenware store. They responded promptly, we chatted on the phone to discuss the various pans they had in stock, and then I drove to the store to pick up my pre-packed order, which they handed out the door. I had two shiny new bread pans within the time it took for the dough to rise.

reoccupy main street
reoccupy main street / Facebook / CC BY 2.

Why does this matter?

This has been a fascinating lesson for me. First, it underscores the power of the Internet (and social media) for shopping locally, even though we usually think of it as a tool for making purchases further afield. If it weren't for Facebook, I wouldn't know how to contact these businesses because they're not answering phones as usual.

Second, the local supply chain is more reliable than relying on shipping from afar. I received all of these items much faster than if I'd ordered them online. It only took six hours from the time I messaged the chocolate shop till my pickup slot, and the toy store owner came to my door 12 hours after we'd settled on a purchase. I had the bread pans within two hours. That's far better than Amazon Prime, which has slowed down these days anyway, completely inundated with orders. (My kids never would've gotten Easter chocolate if I'd gone that route.)

Third, because I'm having to chase down individual vendors for specific items, it's forcing me to think long and hard about what I actually need. There's no perusing the aisles and picking up random additional products just because they look appealing. Whether I pick up or it's delivered, my order is packed, paid for, ready to go. I've had to pay more for certain products than if I'd bought them second-hand (baking pans, especially), but I justify it as a way to help support my community at a difficult time, almost like a donation of sorts.

Finally, I'm realizing that if it's possible to support local "Main Street" businesses at a time like this, it's possible to support them anytime. We really need to stop making excuses for why ordering stuff online from faraway monster corporations is a better option than going to nearby business owners.

I challenge readers to try to provide for their needs by sourcing items from within their own communities. Before logging on to Amazon, take a moment to ask yourself which local stores might sell those same products, and then reach out with an inquiry. All it takes is a message or a phone call, a credit card number exchanged, and those items could be on your doorstep in a matter of hours. Give it a try; it's deeply satisfying.