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Saving pennies and dollars ... but at what real cost?

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

In the checkout lines ... Conform or be cast out.

-- Rush

We're all, I believe, guilty of lamenting the loss of local-owned and -operated businesses after the fact.

We'll read or hear that the little family restaurant that always had the best home cooking, the mom-and-pop grocery or the shade-tree mechanic decided to pull up stakes in search of greener pastures, and our response is generally the same: That's a shame.

As we mourn -- momentarily only, alas -- the loss of each business to corporate America, we offer up what's become a go-to excuse: The establishment got "Walmarted," driven out of business by a high-volume megastore with pockets deep enough to cut prices beyond the bone. The moms-and-pops of the world have limited options: (1) Match price cuts until your cost is higher than your customers'; (2) rely on customer loyalty; or (3) close the doors.

All three, sadly, end the same way: in failure.

There's never a question in the Fletcher household that we are bargain shoppers. We check the circulars in the Sunday paper for the lowest prices on items we use regularly, and I have been known to drive a few miles out of the way when I get word that a particular gas station in town has prices a few cents lower than its competitors.

Except for an elite few -- most of whom would be unlikely to offer me the time of day -- pretty much everyone I know does some version of the same thing. To say that this lousy economy has taken a bite out of everyone -- from years without pay raises to increased insurance costs to layoffs to furloughs to job cuts -- is not exaggeration. Everyone's doing what he or she can to stay afloat.

But there are plenty of local businesses not run by large corporations that I support every opportunity I get. Yes, I pull into the parking lot knowing that I'm probably going to pay a couple of dollars more than I would if I stood in a long, never-moving line for an hour or two and endured the dour expression of the checkout person at one of the megastores. (Do these companies offer Stephen King novels as customer service training manuals?)

My purchases are usually not that significant, but I walk away from these independent establishments feeling better about myself, feeling that I have at least in some small way taken a stand to support a business underdog in his fight against the greed of modern-day corporate America. I only wish more local consumers felt that way.

Sure, saving money any way possible is a good thing today, a necessity even for most of us. But I sincerely believe the cost of losing locally owned and operated businesses -- businesses that help define a community -- to the McBillionaire corporate giants that are gradually taking over this country's souls in addition to its pocketbooks is much greater.

Little by little, our business communities are losing their identities as we all get in line to collect an insignificant share of the largesse we make for the titans of industry who see us as meaningless parts of a well-oiled machine created for one purpose: to make them more money. Then we go and give our tiny share right back to them.

Think about that when you're standing with dozens of your closest friends in the checkout lines at Super-Duper Megamart this week. You'll save a buck or two, yes, but what is the going exchange rate on your -- and your community's -- heart and soul?

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcheralbanyherald.com.