Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why do this and how is this going to work?

First off, the obvious question: why do this? Why, when living in such a large, urban area, would I want to restrict all my shopping to New Westminster?

I've always been the kind of person who wants to shop locally. My desire stems from vague notions that shopping locally is good for the community, the local economy and the environment, though I really don't know that much about exactly how local economies work. I want to find out whether and how my actions as a consumer effect the local economy. You see, despite my desire, the reality is, I don't really shop locally all that much.

Most of the shopping I do in New Westminster is usually at chain stores and it's mostly for groceries or food. I go to Safeway, Walmart, Starbucks, Boston Pizza and White Spot. For most other items, including clothing, furniture, hardware, and shoes, I leave New Westminster and drive to another community to do my shopping.

The reason I leave town to shop is the same reason I think New Westminster is uniquely suited for this experiment. It's in the middle of a large urban area, but it's really just a small town (population 60,000) in many ways. But, unlike towns with similar populations NOT in the middle of a urban area, New Westminster seems to be missing certain kinds of stores and services that drives me, and has me driving, to other communities to shop. One reason I want to do this experiment is to see just what retailers and services are missing from New Westminster, as well as to find out what is here. (I've heard there are interesting stores in New West, even interesting clothing stores, but I've never set foot in one.)

I’m increasingly shopping online and a recent online purchase, along with a recent local purchase I didn't make, also helped inspire this blog. I ordered some glass food storage containers online from Bed, Bath and Beyond. My e-receipt came with a UPS tracking number and I was stunned by the circuitous route my containers took. They started out in Las Vegas, went to Salt Lake City, then Hermiston, Oregon, then to Redmond, Washington, where they finally crossed the border to Richmond and made one last stop at Annacis Island before being delivered to my house. Two of the seven containers arrived broken. I was able to return them to the Bed, Bath and Beyond in Coquitlam and the helpful staff there re-ordered the two broken containers for me. The replacement containers started out in Seacaucus, New Jersey, and, according to the UPS Website, arrived in Spokane, Washington, at exactly 2:41 a.m. this morning.

There's a little farm in my neighbourhood that sells flowers, vegetables and fruit. I have stopped there maybe twice this summer and one day, I noticed they were selling big, gorgeous heads of leaf lettuce for 79 cents. I didn't need lettuce that day (because I had a $1.25 head of lettuce from Safeway in my fridge), but thought I should stop in one day and get some. That day never came.

There's something about these scenarios that strikes me as deeply strange and wrong. Somehow, my shopping habits have become completely disconnected from my local community. It's somehow more "convenient" for me to get storage containers from Vegas than it is for me to get lettuce from just down my street. I love the idea of local shopping, but haven't gotten around to the reality of actually doing it. I hope this experiment helps me shake up my habits and, in the process, re-connects me to my community.

Not long after buying the glass containers, I was reading a blog post by Briana Tomkinson on Tenth to the Fraser.

She was expressing woe about the poor mix of retailers in New Westminster.

"I want New West to have a more varied, and well, ambitious, mix of retailers and restaurants. I want our city to stop being such an economic underachiever and create shopping districts for real shoppers."

This comment really resonated with me. If I'm typical of New Westminster residents, leaving town to buy most goods and services, that diverse and ambitious mix of retailers will never be attracted here. If the retailers aren't here, residents will keep leaving town to shop. It's a vicious, but predictable, cycle.

The sad thing is, from what I have heard, New Westminster used to be a shopping mecca. (I plan to outline this history in a future post.) I would think its central location played a big part in that, but now, ironically, its central location may work against it. It's just so easy to get everywhere from here, that people don't see the need for all kinds of stores right in town. People don't mind jumping in their cars or on the SkyTrain to head to the malls and shopping districts of Burnaby, Richmond, Coquitlam, Surrey and Vancouver.

I know I will be eliminating a lot of choices by eliminating other communities, as well as online shopping, but I'm pretty sure less choice will actually turn out to be a good thing. You see, I have a love/hate relationship with shopping. (This will come as news to my husband, who I’m sure would say I am not only in love with shopping, but in the midst of a torrid, passionate affair with it.)

Everyone knows the thrill of finding just the right item, for just the right price. But shopping can be tedious and time-consuming too. While I love my new glass storage containers, they were kinda a pain to buy. I spent a long time online looking for just the right ones. When two of them arrived broken, I had to drive over to Coquitlam to return them. Bed, Bath and Beyond is behind all the construction on the Lougheed Highway, so I had to navigate a maze to get there. The people at Bed, Bath and Beyond are extremely (almost eerily) helpful, but the return process took a long time. I find I have this kind of shopping experience fairly often, where the amount of time it takes to find, buy and, God forbid, return an item hardly makes a "bargain" a bargain.

The bottom line? When I look back on my life, I want to say a lot more about what I accomplished than, "Wow, was I ever a good shopper."

How will this work?
Pretty simple. I'll do all my shopping in New Westminster for one year, starting Oct. 1.

Why Oct. 1? While I have a pretty good idea what my shopping habits are, I want to keep track of them before I make the switch to local shopping. So for the month of September, I'll document my usual shopping habits on this blog.

After Sept. 30, it's all local, all the time.

I do not intend to exclude any stores that are in New Westminster city limits and that includes chain stores and restaurants. However, wherever possible, I will seek out locally owned alternatives before hitting a big chain. My big grocery shops are always done at Safeway and I will continue, for the most part, to do them there.

A word about Walmart: living in Queensborough means not only living near Walmart, but having my neighbourhood defined to an extent by Walmart. Often times people don't know where Queensborough is (even people from New West who should know better). Saying, "I live in Queensborough," often gets blank looks. "Near the new Walmart," gets the dawn of recognition.

I'm the kind of person who likes to deny shopping at Walmart. "Oh, it's in our neighbourhood, but we don't really shop there much," I say. 

Reality check: I pop in there all the time. Our last vacuum cleaner was purchased there. Just bought a mirror there. When our son is invited to a birthday party, the present often comes from there. Cards, milk, magazines; Walmart, Walmart, Walmart.

There's been lots of writing done about Walmart's effect on communities. There's even a PBS special. But, for now, Walmart is a reality in my community, so I'm not going to stop shopping there completely.

Any exceptions?

Queensborough borders Hamilton, a neighbourhood in Richmond, and there is a PriceSmart grocery store there. The store has been struggling in the past few years and local residents have been trying to shop there as much as possible to keep the only true grocery store in the area alive. It's in Richmond, but I consider it a part of my neighbourhood, so I'll keep shopping there.

Under the category of, More Information Than Anyone Wants to Know, another exception is my deodorant. I am super-sensitive to most deodorants and antiperspirants and pretty much the only thing I can use is made by Kiehl's. They have a store in downtown Vancouver and unless I can find it locally (doubtful), I will continue to buy it there. I'm committed to shopping locally, but that doesn't extend to a willingness to walk around either smelly (no deodorant) or with itchy pits (using some other deodorant) all year.