Financial systems have always been fragile. Barry Eichengreen

Local is the new digital

Buying on the Internet is easy and convenient, but it cannot replace the experience you get from buying from your local dealer.

It began with the new bike helmet. I was looking for a helmet that wasn’t too sporty, because that wouldn’t match the business outfit I wear when cycling through my home town. At the same time, I didn’t want the helmet to just be a dull, grey-black, functional thing. On the Internet, I found what I was looking for and noticed that I could buy it from a local dealer right around the corner. I went straight to the shop, tried on a few helmets, chose the right one, paid, and left.

On my way home, I pondered whether I had done the right thing. Isn’t it common sense by now that the Internet has killed the local independent dealers because we only go there to try things on, then buy what we want online later?

Note that the bike shop I had chosen to buy from was on lunch break when I arrived. I briefly considered ordering the helmet on the Internet, but I decided to wait in a café until the shop opened its doors again. Why? Because I wanted to know how I looked with the helmet on and how it felt and fit before buying it.

Am I so hopelessly old-fashioned?

A couple of days later my children announced that they were going to pay us a visit, together with my grandchild. We needed a baby chair and began looking on the Internet. We found all the well-known brands and noticed the enormous price differences – but were unable to tell which one was of the best quality. This led me to look up dealers in my home town that sell baby chairs. I biked there, browsed through the assortment, tested a few chairs, reached a decision, and left with a top-notch baby chair. Granted, the chair looked a bit bulky on my bike rack, but I knew that I had bought a quality one.

One more example: While preparing for a presentation, I urgently needed a book. Given the hurry I was in, I checked online to find out whether the bookstores in my home town had the book in store. They did, and so I cycled from my office to the city – a five-minute ride – and bought the book.

Do I act in opposition to common sense? Am I so hopelessly old-fashioned, a true grandfather, that I don’t recognize that the Internet is not only good for searching for items but also for buying them? Or does my case prove that it is almost impossible to conclude anything about the future behavior of people from current trends? When I tweeted about this string of experiences, somebody replied: “Local is the new digital” – and maybe there’s something to that. Maybe I am not anachronistic or old-fashioned, but a trendsetter.

Looking, talking, touching

The Internet does not have to mark the end of traditional retail stores or local dealers. The Internet may offer us a plentitude of items, and sometimes ordering online is the most convenient way. Take the example of the book I gave before: a book is always the same; it has no varying sizes or colors. Therefore, I was not surprised by its appearance or texture. By visiting the store, I just saved one day of waiting. However, the case also shows that the Internet can support retail stores.

There are still cases when I want to physically experience a product before I buy it, since the product is not standardized. I want to feel and test it. My decision as to whether to buy it or not depends on the feel of it and on a conversation with the sales staff that cannot be replaced by or compensated through a return service. Buying is not just a transaction; it is an event, a cultural practice, and thus far more than a mere transfer of ownership based on monetary payment. Looking, talking, touching, testing, critical views, queries, doubts about the seller and the product, leaving, and eventually coming back to buy: that is why I continue to go to the store.

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