“I want to hear more about your decision to de-emphasize localness as a prime value point. I thought that was an awesome differentiator and a rare example of a true environmental and ethical need being addressed in a realistic way.”
This email from Eric, our thesis instructor, illustrated an interesting difference in perspective that has come up frequently throughout Nearbuy’s development. My reply follows:
I believe that the critical need served by Nearbuy is getting more people in dense urban environments to shop locally for everyday goods. Not boutique, handmade, bespoke, locally-sourced goods, but meat-and-potato things.
This choice is rooted in my research into gentrification, and my resulting belief that many of the structural inequities facing New Yorkers today are exacerbated by a feedback loop triggered by large, deep-pocketed corporations replacing mom-and-pop shops in our communities.
It goes something like this: a lovely upwardly-mobile community gets its first Starbucks. Maybe it’s a Duane Reade, or a Chase, or a SoulCycle, or a 7-Eleven. Local commercial landlords take note, because these huge chain stores have deep pockets and have no problem signing long-term leases. So they start jacking up the rents of the independent stores in the neighborhood, who have virtually zero legal recourse and inevitably are forced to close up shop. Some are soon replaced by the next huge chain (incidentally, others are replaced by nothing, because their landlord has left their storefront empty for months or years in the hopes of attracting a better marquee tenant). Soon, residential real estate brokers take notice of the big chains, and use them as levers to rapidly raise residential rents. Before you know it, longterm residential tenants are out on their asses alongside the independent merchants.
And what does that leave? Landmarked neighborhoods filled with chain stores and the types of upscale boutiques, salons and other expensive establishments that can support these higher rents. And who’s left to shop in these places? The small, homogenous class of individuals who can still afford to live in the neighborhood.
So how do we attack this problem? Well, we start by supporting legislation to protect commercial tenants. Then, we develop tools (like Nearbuy, hint hint) to help local merchants attract new customers. Not the high-end boutiques — they don’t need help. But rather, the independent hardware stores, bookstores, pharmacies, Korean delis, bodegas, 99¢ stores. The places in your neighborhood stocking goods for your everyday needs who are asphyxiating from the combination of megachains, Amazon, and impossibly high commercial rents. They need exposure to a wider audience. They need help and visibility. They need to be seen as a reasonable, compelling alternative for a wide swath of New Yorkers — not just an ego-boost for the already-converted folks who try to shop locally and donate to WNYC.
So, yeah. It’s about localness. But what’s going to get you to download and use the app? Will it be an abstract societal goal, or will it be because it helps you solve a basic shopping need, right now, in the most convenient way?