|Microsoft's domination isn't healthy for the technology industry, the overall economy, or human well-being in general. But it's not the only industry in which serious commercial damage is being done, and where we - in our role as "consumers" - have the power to make a difference. These are some suggestions of other industries we can protect from being overrun, and help society and ourselves in doing so.|
|Bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders are killing off independent booksellers. They arrange special volume discounts that smaller sellers can't match, and specifically target markets with large independent stores they can put out of business and replace. Some of the largest ones are even buying out book distributors and publishers, leaving indy bookstores at a further disadvantage. But independent bookstores are the ones that have traditionally championed new writers rather than whatever the big publishers decided to push, and actually stock (not just special-order) the kinds of unusual and interesting books that made a "free press" worth guaranteeing in the U.S. Constitution. A single chain location may stock more different books than a single indy store, but collectively the indies support a much wider diversity of authors and publishers. And while a chain store may have a "feminist" or "children" or "mystery" or "spirituality" or "travel" or "sci-fi" or "lesbian/gay" section, it won't have nearly the depth or breadth of an independent bookstore that specializes in one of those niches. The independents know what they're up against and are trying hard to earn customer loyalty, and they deserve your support. Some of the high-tech niceties of the chains are matched by independent bookstores who are on the web either by themselves or through IndieBound.org.|
|Major video rental chains like Blockbuster are not only using their mass-marketing clout to squeeze smaller, independently-owned places out of business, they're effectively suppressing the content and availability of movies in the process. While your local chain bookstore will probably special-order just about any available book for you, the same isn't true of video rental chains: what they stock is what you get to choose from. Blockbuster in particular refuses to carry any films they deem "controversial". If a vocal faction - however small or provincial - protests against a title, they'll yank it... nationwide. Even worse, the movies they do carry are frequently edited to their standards, without any indication to the customer that they're not getting the original: a form of quiet unaccountable censorship. Which wouldn't be a problem if there were adequate alternatives in most communities, where someone with an interest in "unapproved" movies could pick them up in their unexpurgated version, but that's getting harder and harder outside the largest cities. Even if you don't want to rent disturbing or "mature" movies yourself, if you care about the right of people to choose what they want to watch, then support the video rental places that support the right to rent complete and controversial videos.|
|Fast food chains such as McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Arby's, etc. and slightly up-scale chains like T.G.I.Friday's, Applebee's, Chili's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bennigan's, Outback, etc. are changing the nature of the food we eat (to say nothing of how we eat it), in part by replacing local restaurants in our eating habits. Everyone knows by now that a typical fast-food meal is high in fat, calories, sodium, sugar, caffeine, and other things we already consume too much of. But they're also high in homogeneity and artificiality. That hamburger you grabbed on the expressway to Springfield last week didn't come from a cow. It was probably made from the same herd-sized vat of factory-raised ground beef as the one you ate yesterday downtown, and the one you'll eat on the way home from the mall this weekend. If you're going to enjoy a cholesterolly slab of meat and gooey sauce (and most of us do, at least once in a while) why not get it at [insert the name of a local one-of-a-kind restaurant here] instead? The burger is almost certain to taste better, add some variety to your diet, support a local business owner, and even let you sit and enjoy your meal without juggling it with the steering wheel and cell phone. (Plus, your chances of also finding something healthy on the menu are a lot better.)|
|Pizza is a special class of "fast food", worth mentioning separately. It was introduced into the U.S. diet by small mama-and-papa pizzerias, and has since become as American as apple pie. But a handful of huge chains like Domino's, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar's, and Papa John's are supplanting real pizzerias. You can't even walk in, sit down, and order a pizza at most of these places; they're delivery/take-out-only. And their pies all have a mass-produced sameness to them. To compete with the delivery giants, independent pizzerias usually offer delivery and take-out service now as well, and I take advantage of it, calling ahead then walking down the street (past three of the above chains) to pick up a pizza from Gino's to take home. But there's something special about going out with a bunch of friends, for pizzas made by a cook from his own recipe (not minimum-wagers assembling them by rote). Find a real pizzeria with a beer/wine licence, and you're all set!|
|The American beer industry has undergone a renaissance in recent years with microbreweries producing a greater variety of ales, pilsners, stouts, and so on than had been widely tasted in North America since before Prohibition. These beers have become popular and profitable enough that the major breweries (whose undifferentiated lagers had dominated the national market for years) have tried to make their own and/or buy out small breweries (like they'd also done decades earlier) to get their market dominance back. While it's nice that Miller, Anheuser Busch, and Coors are finally producing some decent beers (instead of just discontinuing them, like when they bought out breweries before), the real credit (and patronage) should go to the guys who've stuck their necks out to try something different. So spend a little extra on a locally-produced, small-batch brew, and enjoy beer the way it was meant to be tasted. Or better yet, pick up some brewing equiment and make your own (which is what I did for a while, way back when Rolling Rock was about as "exotic" a beer as I could find in local stores).|
|The banking industry is in the midst of a massive consolidation spree, with banks buying and merging with each other at an alarming rate. Not because the industry is failing, but because regulations intended to prevent this kind of reduced competition have been relaxed. With less competition, fees go up and rates get worse. Local banks tend to be better than the nationals and are certainly worth looking at. Credit unions are an even better alternative. They provide a lot of the same services as banks (insured savings and checking accounts, ATMs, loans, CDs, credit cards, etc.), but they're different from banks in two ways: A) they're not-for-profit organisations, and B) they have to restrict their membership to certain groups of people, such as employees of a particular company, or workers in a particular industry in a certain area. Many credit unions are trying to make their membership criteria more inclusive, allowing more people to join. (For example, mine is now open to anyone living or working in the four surrounding counties.) Look for a CU you're eligible to join. If there isn't one, encourage your employer to affiliate with one so you can join it. And if you are eligible, go ahead and sign up for better rates, better service, and the satisfaction of knowing that your money is being used to provide loans for your neighbours/co-workers/etc., not to enrich stockholders or corporate executives in another state.|
|The state of radio in the U.S. has become abysmal: there's a radio station for every taste in music... as long as you like predictable tunes in a narrow format played over and over and over. Radio was once home to the eclectic experimentation that gave rise to new musical forms like rock and roll. But then it became formatted: segregated into country, top-40, album-oriented rock, easy-listening, classical, etc. because that made it easier to sell advertising time. Next it became programmed: a few professional services deciding what songs to put on the air nation-wide (making the "payola" scandal of the late 1950's look harmless in comparison). Now it's being consolidated: several national companies (mainly Clear Channel, plus Viacom/CBS, Cox, ABC/Disney, Citadel, and a few others) each own vast numbers of stations (including multiple "competing" stations in each market). "Disk jockeys" don't even play the music anymore; they're just voices to talk between the songs the computer selects, giving the illusion that someone local is still involved. You can find on-air studios that don't even have a CD player. For that matter, the jocks themselves are often on tape or even fed in by satellite. (So if they don't answer the phone, it may be because there's no one there, and if they don't actually play your request, it's because they can't. ) Frankly, if you really like music, about all that's left to do at this point is to abandon mainstream radio and seek out independent and non-commercial stations that are still doing their own thing. Colleges and universities often operate them, publicly-funded radio stations usually feature quality programming from NPR and/or PRI, and some areas (like mine, thank the gods) have truly independent community radio stations they can listen to and support. If you can't find anything in your area, look online.|
|There's something of a pattern emerging here, so rather than describing each industry where this is happening, I'll address it in general: national and international businesses are replacing or buying up local ones. Among the industries this is affecting are hardware stores, groceries, music shops, drug stores, and gas stations. For example, when a new mall was built on the southwest side of town here a while back, someone noted that all but one of the tenants (a locally-based regional bank) were out-of-state companies. And that bank has since been sold. Sure, these new mall shops are all providing jobs here, but that's all. The profits from these businesses are all being sent to stockholders in other places, rather than enriching local business owners who'd spend the money in the community, and maybe even donate it to local charities. So much for the local economy. The solution: always look for locally-owned businesses to patronise if you can. And yes, the same principle should be applied to the Web: surf globally, but shop locally.|
|The U.S. Postal Service is a monopoly that I actually endorse and support. Why? Because it's one created for the public good, with legal mandates that require it to serve that purpose. Although rising postage rates (due to declining business) are making it more expensive, there's something priceless about an agency that will deliver a confidential, personal letter from anywhere in the country to anywhere else in the country, for a fixed rate of less than fifty cents. And with no distance charges, or special fees for serving remote areas or Saturday delivery. Competitors such as UPS and FedEx may sometimes offer better service and/or cheaper rates on certain delivery options, but they don't provide poor and rural areas with local offices like the Postal Service does... offices which also provide ancillary services that might not otherwise be available in these areas, such as affordable money orders and government forms. (I've also seen FedEx take a package off a delivery truck and leave it at the local office for two more nights, because the shipper had only paid for "3-day" delivery and they didn't want to give better service than he'd paid for.) Some argue that the Postal Service's monopoly on standard mail service is unfair to competing delivery services, but since I don't believe for a minute that those companies would provide the kind of equal, universal service the USPS does, I'm not eager to see them replace it.|
|This has no direct connection to large-scale marketplace activism, but it makes sense on a personal scale, and I'm surprised more people haven't thought of it. Instead of buying a gasoline- or electric-powered lawn mower, I bought a push-powered "reel" mower. Young people might not remember them, but not too long ago (before the status-oriented consumerism of the 1950's convinced everyone that gas-powered mowers were preferable) the typical homeowner cut their grass with a quiet, lightweight mower with cylindrically-spinning blades "powered" by its rolling wheels. Electric-powered mowers are quieter and less noxious than gas-powered, but they're only a half-step in the right direction. Modern reel mowers are less expensive to buy, don't require fuel, don't belch unregulated toxic emissions into the air, are easy to carry and store, are incredibly quiet, cut the grass more cleanly, and provide some very easy, low-intensity exercise that you don't get from sitting on a little tractor or following a self-propelled machine. The only bad news is that you might have to stop mowing and talk to your annoying next-door neighbor once in a while, because there's no noise or safety hazard to prevent him from walking up and saying "howdy" while you're doing it. By the way, a lot of the same thinking applies to rakes instead of leaf-blowers, shovels instead of slow-blowers, and bicycles instead of automobiles.|
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