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Editorial cartoon 10/10/18

We American consumers are a fickle lot.

I was reminded of that again last week when a family-owned local grocery chain announced it is calling it quits after decades serving the Chicago market.

The few giant national chains, the product of years of cutthroat consolidation, did them in, just as they have done in thousands of mom-and-pop stores across the land, including here in Wisconsin.

All for the sake of saving a buck or two, shoppers unwittingly rush to the latest mega-store while the small businesses that have served as the bedrock of American commerce for centuries drop by the wayside.

One of those shoppers wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune last week blaming herself for the closing of the locally owned Treasure Island groceries.

"I am overtaken by remorse," she wrote. "Did I really need to buy a six-month supply of paper towels at Costco just to save a dollar or two? Was it really that much more convenient to order Method soap online? Were the strawberries at Whole Foods really better-tasting than the ones at Treasure Island — organic or not?"

The writer then recounted a number of stories about the personal touches she enjoyed at the hometown store, the integrity of the workers, many of them from the neighborhood, the willingness to help find a product that was temporarily sold out, the going beyond the call of duty in searching for the owners of a lost wallet or purse, the concern for the community itself.

As a kid growing up in the little town of New Glarus, I remember how the village of 1,200 and its surrounding farmers supported five mom-and-pop grocery stores, four auto dealerships, four farm-implement businesses, three hardware stores and, yes, 12 taverns.

Each business contributed to the community in many ways. They sponsored youth baseball teams, bought shirts for numerous bowling teams, helped underwrite the high school play and made contributions to the high school football and basketball teams, not to mention their contributions to the church. None of these local merchants was wealthy, but they shared what little they had to help keep their neighborhoods healthy.

Try getting that kind of commitment from the Walmarts, Home Depots, giant restaurant chains and all the other conglomerates that now dominate the nation's commerce. Want a contribution for the high school football team? That's against corporate policy. Sorry. The big bosses in some far-off city get to decide causes to support and they're typically national organizations, not local nonprofits.

For the sake of economical cookie-cutter simplicity, every corporate store or restaurant is the same. I had to laugh when a friend of mine ordered a brandy and water at a Buffalo Wild Wings and was served a shot glass of brandy with a glass of water. When she complained that isn't the way a brandy and water is poured, the bartender referred to the printed corporate instructions, which called for the drink to be served precisely that way.

That's because there's no room for local deviation like Wisconsin's proclivity to drink brandy. You can bet that the locally owned sports bar down the street knows precisely how to mix a brandy and water.

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Yet we continue to rush to take Ubers instead of the locally owned cab, shun the local hamburger joint for McDonald's, save 20 cents on that box of laundry soap at Walmart, or reward by saving a couple of bucks online, all the while contributing to an economy that is more and more ruled by a few multibillion-dollar faceless corporations.

Meanwhile, politicians who ought to be looking out for local retailers want to give the big guys even more clout. Note the nearly annual push by many Republican legislators to do away with Wisconsin's historic minimum markup law aimed at helping the little guys stay in business, the only bulwark against unfair discounts the big guys can offer.

We're fast approaching the Christmas shopping season. One way to help local businessmen and women is to spend our money with them this year. It's the very least we can do to at least slow down the consolidation that we will regret years from now.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. and on Twitter @DaveZweifel. 

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