Pittsburgh Business Here and There

Let's start with the Buy Local movement, to which this morning's PG devotes many inches: Spend $50 at 3 local businesses, goes one saying, and you'll help to save your neighborhood. Or, Buy Fresh, Buy Local -- agricultural products.

The problem is -- buying local isn't enough, and sometimes it's the wrong thing to do.

Because in the same edition of the PG (today's!) there is another great story about a local business that is thriving -- online. Rollier's Hardware is an icon of the local Mt. Lebanon economy, a still-successful example of a vanishing breed: the local hardware store. It is a fabulous store (though not quite as fabulous as a store that I visited last summer, McGuckin, in Boulder!), yet it has enthusiastically and successfully made the leap to hyperspace. Rollier's is behaving like Willie Sutton. Sutton robbed banks, he is alleged to have said, because that's where the money was. But Rollier's is on the right side of the law. Even the greatest local businesses need to do what they can do to survive, and that sometimes means taking business out of local communities elsewhere. It's not show friends, it's show business. No local business can survive - nor should it - without a good value proposition.

The myth here, in other words, is that local businesses deserve local support just because they're local. And that's just not true. Out here in the South Hills, I am surrounded by local businesses that I love to support with my money. But I don't support them just because they're local; I support them because I get a great return on my dollar - that combination of price, quality, convenience, ambiance, and service that makes it worth my while to buy at one store rather than another. Rollier's is one. There's a little pharmacy on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard, Asti's, that's a second. Empire Music on Washington Road is a third. Mt. Lebanon has a lot of coffee shops and a lot of restaurants. Aldo Coffee, on Washington Road, has the best coffee, in my opinion, and the friendliest environment, but every shop has its partisans. Many of the restaurants in Mt. Lebanon are good; none are really great. There's one restaurant out here, though, that stands out for its sheer exuberance: Cocina Mendoza, which is also on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard (and, as a result, is actually in Castle Shannon, not Mt. Lebanon). The food is pretty good, too. And the margaritas.

There are plenty of local shops whose disappearance would not be mourned. I won't name them (well, I gave an example here), but they are the complacent ones: They haven't improved their products in years, or even changed them. Their prices are uncompetitive. And worst, they are indifferent to their customers. I'm willing to pay above-market prices if I get something else in return, but a store that exhibits indifference to my patronage is a store that deserves to disappear. Give that space to someone who wants my business. You want to stay in my community and make it better? Don't plead with me to spend my money. Give me a reason to spend my money. There is no charm or value in a neighborhod filled with local - but crappy - stores.

Is that selfish on my part? Unsympathetic to the plight of local merchants? Perhaps. But only an idiot opens a store and simply expects people to shop or eat there. It's a lesson that I learned 25 years ago, as I was finishing school and working as a lawyer representing a lot of small company clients. There is no money in retail, and most new restaurants fail. Want to make a little money? Be the exceptional restaurant that survives? Work for your customers. I'll call it local capitalism. Or better, a Sell Local movement. If the economy is going to grow, locally, nationally, and internationally, then businesses need to compete.

Speaking of selling locally, yesterday's PG followed Chris with a story about the struggling Delta flight from Pittsburgh to Paris. It seems that not enough people are following Chris and Eve and heading to the Continent for fun and profit. Empty planes to Paris will put the Allegheny Conference on the hook to pony up the subsidy that it promised Delta if the planes were empty.

And you know what? Forget Paris. Paris is a fantastic city, but Pittsburgh's European romance is mostly based on another marketing myth - that Pittsburghers should want to play in the big kids' playground, which means Europe. Well, we'll always have Paris. Personally, I think that the Allegheny Conference should take a page out of the Rollier's playbook. Follow the money. I would much prefer that air service marketing efforts go toward something that I suspect has a bigger impact on both the Pittsburgh population at large and on local business -- but that relies on the assumption that Pittsburgh is a second (or third) tier city. How about flights to the West Coast? Pittsburgh is down to one nonstop flight per day to San Francisco, which is increasingly the number one West Coast gateway to Asia, and one nonstop per day to Los Angeles, home of the film industry that is on the cusp of making Pittsburgh a genuine film production home-away-from-home. Right now, if my experience is a guide, those flights aren't always full. Why work on increasing those numbers - butts in seats, and planes in the air? The West Coast, Asia: That's where the money is.


2 Responses to "Pittsburgh Business Here and There"

Dean Jackson said... 3/14/2010 1:55 PM

For the number of tech people in Pittsburgh who visit SF fairly regularly, it's astonishing there's only one flight a day nonstop going there.

Nonstop to Paris never made much sense; we don't have a large French population here, and if you're flying to another continent, it's usually okay to take a transfer in NYC, even if you're flying out of somewhere like DC.

MH said... 3/14/2010 7:31 PM

I drink regional beer, but I'll only drink PA wine if I'm at one of those charity things where you can't get better.

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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at madisonian.net, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

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