The real threat to merchants: online competition, not individuals

BRATTLEBORO — I'm not sure why there are more people begging in Brattleboro than in comparable other towns. But I know they are not the most serious threat to local retail.

Tax-free shopping put building-supply and other businesses in New Hampshire. And Walmart's pressure-sourcing and low wages made sale of basic clothing and other goods, from toys to housewares, unprofitable on Main Street.

And the mega-threat, now, is not beggars but the internet: first and foremost Amazon, whose scale, diversity, smartness, and cutthroat practices threaten local sale of everything from books to bikes and sporting goods, electronics, appliances, and higher-end clothing.

From Sam's to Burrows Sports to Cocoplum, shoppers now often come not to buy but to shop with their iPhones, photographing goods and tags, then going home and ordering on the 'net. Or, more often, they don't go to a store at all.

And now furniture, mattress, and home decor stores are doomed.

Wayfair has copied Amazon's methods, offering 14 million products at unbeatable prices with free shipping. Emerson and Plotkin's are unlikely to survive.

As they have in countless towns in the hinterland, many New England Main Streets will die. Some will manage: those with a sizable college or university, or those with recreation or scenic attractions, or tourists or exurbanite retirees. Those last are what, for now, keep Brattleboro retail alive.

We are precarious but not helpless. When Home Depot came to Brattleboro and threatened Brown and Roberts, townspeople, including contractors, boycotted the chain. Home Depot left. And Brown and Roberts and Fireside True Value are doing all right.

If we want local retail to survive - and maybe recover - we need to forswear internet shopping, at least when there's a local source.

The internet is convenient. But convenience is not worth its cost to community.

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