As Christmas draws near, the people who own retail outlets and their employees in Moab talk about their struggles and successes trying to provide the needs of a rural community after the tourists have gone home – all the while having to compete with online retailers.
In turn, locals explain why they make the shopping choices they do.
Back of Beyond Books owner Andy Netell expressed how he felt about online megastores selling books so cheaply: “It’s really detrimental to what a community is all about,” he said. “They couldn’t care less about customer service or a sense of community.”
These days, online shoppers can do everything from their homes and even their beds. They don’t walk around from store to store to find an unexpected treasure, they don’t grab a coffee from the coffee shop, and they won’t run into their friends or meet new people along the way.
Back of Beyond Books, however, has remained open for 17 years despite the massive closures of locally owned bookstores since Amazon came along. Since acquiring the business in 2005, Netell said he could understand the local shoppers’ dilemma. “Look at pricing, it’s hard to shop locally,” he said.
Large chains and multi-billion-dollar companies can afford to buy the products they sell in massive quantities, enabling online retailers to sell the products well below market value, both undercutting small businesses and contributing to the perception that a local store is too expensive. As a result, even books' authors can be negatively affected. When Amazon prices a book way below listing price, stores look unethical just charging the normal rate, so they drop the item. Authors then lose connections with independent booksellers.
Some residents, however, make choices to benefit the community in spite of all that. Moab resident Karl Joseph said, “I’m willing to pay a little more for something if I can support a local business.” Joseph, who’s lived in Moab for 10 years said, “I shop locally for things that are specific to Moab.” Among the shopping items on his list is, “Art from a local artist.” Joseph said, “It seemed like a thoughtful gift for my sister because she used to live in Moab and lately she’s been really missing it.”
Joseph said he did buy one gift online, however, a “Chemex” for his mom. A Chemex Coffeemaker is a simple glass and wood pour-over that is featured in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Joseph said he didn’t shop around town for one because, “I figured I wouldn’t be able to find that locally.”
The demand for specialty items in a small town is among the most common reasons locals seem to resort to online shopping. Netell, however, said he encounters situations where he often has the product in stock, but people end up buying it online without looking, assuming a local store like Back of Beyond Books won’t have it.
“It’s demoralizing after a while,” he said. Overall though, Netell said, “Sales this year have been up from previous years.” One of the ways Netell maintains success at engaging the local community is by providing books that benefit youth and education. In Books for Tots and Books for Mentees programs, he provides books specific to the needs of local students, teachers and librarians.
Kerry Lange of Desert West Office Supply puts the money from his ink-cartridge recycling program to purchase some of the books. Lange said it’s a rather labor-intensive and costly recycling process, so he appreciates it when customers buy their supplies at Desert West, instead of recycling their online purchases with him, but it’s a good cause he wants to support, so he accepts all printing recyclables.
Yarn shop Desert Thread also found a way to cater to locals wanting items that are different or special. Co-owner Cathy O’Connor custom-knits special items her customers want so they don’t have to buy them online. She’s currently finishing a project she allowed a customer to design from a series of photos, down to the knitting pattern and special alpaca fiber. The studio has also offered knitting and crocheting classes for years.
Santa Claus popped into the shop to keep O’Connor’s daughter, Rosalie, company. Claus said, “I walk around and visit shops around the holidays, I like to support local businesses, too.”