Buying Local—the Google Angle

By James Fallows
Inside Marriage Special Report bug
Reinvention and resilience across the nation
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An emerging theme from our times in such otherwise-dissimilar cities as Holland, Michigan; Sioux Falls and Rapid City, South Dakota; and Burlington, Vermont has been the profound difference that local consciousness makes.

Locally based corporations and rich families think differently about a place where they live, versus some branch-office location they occasionally drop by. Local development efforts make a difference in whether traditional downtown areas die off or survive. Locally oriented publications can help enhance a sense of community, which in turn enlarges their own audiences, as we saw with Seven Days. Et cetera.

Through the modern economic era, most people have assumed there is a sad but inevitable tradeoff between pure efficiency, and the inefficient touches that make life livable. Extreme example: you could argue that New York would be "richer" if it bid out all of Central Park to developers. Even though this would turn the city into hell. Routine example: towns face this tradeoff with every decision about new shopping malls. On the one hand, big-box stores can mean lower prices. On the other, they usually mean the loss of fabric and texture in a small town.

Seeing how different towns have struck their balance is going to be a continuing theme in our travels. But here is an aspect I hadn't considered: a globalized high-tech offering with a potential local benefit.

As will become obvious if you get about 45 seconds into this report from the ABC station in San Francisco (with 15-second pre-roll ad), my wife and I are highly biased about the new SF-area Google service being described here. The project director who does the describing is our older son, so apply whatever discount seems appropriate. But -- kids these days! they never call, they never write -- until this public unveiling even we hadn't realized the local-shopping implications of what Google is attempting. 

See web-only content:
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/09/buying-local-the-google-angle/280044/

Short version: for reasons of its own, Google needs to compete with Amazon as a venue for on-line commerce. And the niche it has chosen to exploit includes giving local merchants an edge in competing with national chains or Amazon's virtual nationwide marketplace. 

Of course I first noticed this program mainly for family-pride reasons. But having noticed it, I'm interested in the larger survival-of-the-local pattern into which it might fit. If you're in the Bay Area, see what you think.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/09/buying-local-the-google-angle/280044/