I noticed today that next semester’s textbooks are starting to arrive at the college bookstore on campus. I had considered buying them from Amazon–mostly because I wasn’t sure if the texts would be available before Christmas, but also because I could, in some cases, save up to 50% of the cover price by purchasing through Amazon.
I stuck my nose in a conversation after class yesterday. Two students were discussing the campus bookstore and various other campus business matters. Business issues generally do not interest me in the slightest, but in the course of this conversation it occurred to me that fundamentally there is no difference between the independent bookstore and the big-box bookstores like Chapters/Indigo (or Borders or Barnes & Noble) or online retailers like Amazon. There is fundamentally no difference between them insofar as they are all businesses seeking a profit. They are businesses and they want your money.*
And yet we tend to feel guilty about buying our books from Amazon or Chapters. They are the big, bad retailers who buy at special bulk rates, which allows them to undercut their competition. (“Competition” is an odd term for an independent bookstore relative to the big boxers, isn’t it?) This kind of cut-throat competition gives me, as a Christian, pause: how do the commands play out in the business world? What does it mean to love your neighbour at a corporate level? I don’t know the answer to that, although I’m tempted to think that it means absolutely nothing at the corporate level. This is the capitalist, market economy, folks; that’s simply the way it goes. It’s the Darwinism of Wall Street: survival of the biggest and cheapest. It’s just business.
Our incredulity (even if it’s only in theory) is bit disingenuous, though. After all, if the independent local bookstore somehow managed to undercut the big-box retailers, no one would think worse of them.
But beyond that, I wonder if perhaps our finger-pointing at the big-box stores is too…finger…pointing…y. The big-box stores may be offering lower prices than the independent store can afford, but the big-box store is simply offering what we desire (and what the independent store would presumably like to be able to do). We are obsessed with saving money on our purchases, but ultimately saving money is done by many of us simply to acquire more.
Many years ago, Canadian Tire ran an annual yuletide ad campaign with the mantra, “Spend Like Santa, Save Like Scrooge.” The message was that you could get more stuff for less at Canadian Tire. The irony that is often lost on us, however, is that our response is generally not to buy what we need and pocket the savings, but to simply buy more stuff and technically not save anything. Christians tend to be consumerist creatures just as much as anyone. Saving is good because it allows us to buy more. We buy because we have the disposable income, not because we need something. We buy because it’s on sale, not because we need it.
I often say something that drives Dixie nuts. She’ll justify a purchase by saying, “It was 40% off! I saved $30!” And then I’ll respond with, “Yes, but if you hadn’t bought that item, you would have saved 100%”.
I don’t want to suggest that I always take the anti-consumerist high road. I am as consumerist as your next person. But that isn’t good and it is bothering me more and more these days.
My point in all this is that perhaps questioning what we purchase and from where can be a transformative experience, rather than an accusatory one. Perhaps it would be more beneficial to me to not buy from a big-box store not because of their questionable business ethics, but because of my own questionable consumerist mindset. Savings aren’t everything. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” as the saying goes. The question is, earned for what?
*There is therefore little reason, if any, for a Christian to purchase from a retailer who happens to be Christian rather than one who happens to not be.
**I do think there are legitimate reasons to purchase from online retailers, but I’m beginning to realize that there are fewer reasons than I might think. Instant access, for one, is generally not a good reason. Patience is a virtue nearly lost in the western world.