I don’t want to be confused with these people who fail to do basic cost-accounting. The “buy local” crowd simply does not understand basic concepts of comparative advantage and the gains from trade. Thus only one cheer.
Where to start? When I was in high school my friends and I played some role playing games from the White Wolf universe. (Full of vampires, werewolves, and other creatures, mostly in the modern world.) White Wolf had a “support your local comic store” philosophy. As in, if you see this role-playing guidebook at a big book store in an out-of-town trip, go back home and buy it or order it from your local comic store. (Presumably this idea also applied to internet sales.) I think this is actually a good idea.
Why? Can’t a big book store or an internet vendor carry a bigger selection and more efficiently supply us with role-playing books? Yes. Maybe. But the local comic book store is supplying something else. Maybe the store owner has deep knowledge of the products he sells. Maybe he can answer questions, even hard-to-google questions, about Dungeons and Dragons or comic books. You get access to this knowledge “for free”. Meanwhile the comic store has fixed costs: inventory, keeping the lights on, paying staff, etc. It would be a little bit rude to pump the store owner for his specialized knowledge, which he dispenses for free, then turn around and price-shop from someone who will undercut him. (The internet vendor has lower inventory costs, because they can make-to-order or keep a few copies on hand for a much larger population than what the local store serves. At some point, the local comic store can't compete with these economies of scale.)
In this sense, maybe there is a case to be made for supporting local boutique-style shops over internet vendors or big stores in the nearest big city. The higher price you pay is like paying “club dues”, and you get access to specialized knowledge for paying these dues. You might also get a sense of community. I would often run into people I knew and have nerdy conversations at my local comic shop. If you value this kind of interaction, it’s probably worth supporting your local shop.
Maybe there’s an even better model, where nerds and artisans get paid directly for their expertise, so we do away with this “marked-up retail” model of reimbursing them. Pay directly for the expertise, then shop for the best price anywhere we can find it. Or maybe there are enough online forums and discussion groups that this information is freely available or easily search-able. (Careful with this. Ever run into a question that’s hard to Google? I sure have. I alluded to this problem above.) But it’s worth thinking about whether there’s some wisdom to this “buy local” stuff.