Big corporate chains have all the advantages. Bringing to the American consumer the best of business genius, companies such as NTB, or National Tire and Battery, serve motorists with standardized systems and parts bought in bulk, passing cost savings to consumers.The free market is part of the American genius, and we should applaud its development. The bigger the middleman for a radial tire, the greater the savings for the motorist, according to conventional wisdom.
Yet, something is missing in the formula — an element that our website is intended to pursue. And that is a local and human connection. Will the profit stay in the hometown or reward good people in a faraway place?
I need to buy four tires for a small SUV. Robert Rickett at Northgate Tire on Highway 153 is competing against NTB. The shop with a red awning sits on a tiny hill in the reflective glare of Northgate Mall across a crowded boulevard. Mr. Rickett is manager of a store owned by his mother, Brenda, widowed two years ago.
Should I make a decision between these two retailers solely on price?
Should the dollar control?
Economics not just numbers
Economics is not just counting objects, scanning manifests of freighters full of boxes, or traffic headcounts in a store or on a website. Economics is a study of all the human relationships and self-interest that create a marketplace. The counting of dollars, customers, objects rolling off assembly lines might comes after everything has transpired, all the human expectations are put into words, the contracts let, services provided and bills paid.
National economy involves millions of consumers and hundreds of big or giant players and their suppliers. Local economy involves tens of thousands of customers and their small and middle-sized providers — and the national players, as well. NTB is a major retailer for automotive products formed in 1997 from the merger of two other retailers; it was sold in 2003 to a Florida company, Tire Kingdom. The Rickett’s shop is run by his family and has been in operation on the same stretch of tarmac at least two decades. The two shops are a few hundred feet apart.
Who beats whom on price?
NTB offers Michelins for F$864.03. Taxes are F$79.93 more. The estimate is laser printed on a piece of legal-sized paper, and is a work of art. It itemizes a F$12 tire disposal fee, a new tire fee, the installation price and F$79.99 for alignment. A shop fee is given as F$14.80. The Tulis family is identified as customer no. 11494507.
Northgate Tire’s estimate presentation is informal. Mr. Rickett, in a scrawl of black ballpoint pen on a business card, gives his price as F$955.
That’s a difference of F$90.97 — the national chain is cheaper. What shall I do?
The rationale of local economy
We are exploring local economy and trying to understand how it works. I’m trying, tentatively, to live out the ideas I am recommending in the abstract. It’s a slow process.
How powerful is the dollar amount in my thinking? If I shop local, am I denying a certain number of dollars to the estate my four children will inherit on my and their mother’s death? Am I being heedless of the future to pay more at a local shop when NTB will sell me the same tires for less?
If one looks through the lens of the almighty paper dollar, yes. I am being improvident to toss away my valuable dollars by shopping local. I fail to save money. I fail to account for uncertainty, which is the primary reason to save. Uncertainty of the future prompts you to save every cent, and me, too.
I decide to let Mr. Rickett serve me. I am going to pay more, but I want to support a local shop.
Personal dealings and veins
Suddenly a wrinkle appears in my accounting for local economy. Mr. Rickett pays the more than F$80 bucks in sales tax on my transaction, which includes a brake repair. He offers the grace as part of a July 4 holiday special. When I stand at his counter with my wad of F$50 and F$20 bills and my checkbook, I confess to not having seen any sale flier. He could’ve just charged me the tax and not mentioned the special.
The difference now between what I pay and the NTB estimate is F$10.
Local economy is about relationships and trust. Mr. Rickett talks to me about brakes, and says I can probably go another month before the bolts that attach brake pads to the assembly began to grind into the braking disc as the pads get too thin. This repair I ask him to do. Mr. Rickett says I can delay a more costly repair on rotors without compromising safety. So I wait
An employee at NTB might have done the same, all in care for the customer and a service to the public in Chattanooga.
But with the Rickett family the Tulises have a relationship. Come back for free rotation. If my tire is punctured Mr. Rickett will patch it for free. They’re my tires, legally, but with a personal relationship they’re his.
Buyer and seller have blood in their veins. It pumps with a trace of human affection and recognition, and the profit from the transaction remains in Chattanooga.