Promoting Buy-Local - Part I
by Fred Gillette
Although I just had the best rugelach ever at my neighborhood coffee house, while finally learning how to ask for it without pointing, that’s not the only reason I like to go there. I like having a comfortable, cozy coffee house within easy walking distance of home. Although I don’t have enough coffee sophistication to know whether or not I’m getting great coffee, I do find the lattes superb … with foam that has staying power. Perhaps more importantly, I like the idea of supporting the practice (when reasonable) of buying local. But I realize that there are still more factors drawing me to this neighborhood place of business.
Much is being made lately of what citizens and neighbors can do, should they care to, of furthering the buy-local movement. A little more attention can well be directed toward the local merchants’ needs and interests and to what they might do to get our attention and nurture our loyalty.
My neighborhood coffee house made notable efforts to get my attention … and to deserve it. They started business several years ago with an eye catching décor, both inside and out. But they didn’t stop there. There have been continuous improvements over the years, visible to even casual passers by. There are signs in the window promoting the visits of local musicians and musical groups. Their bulletin board has become a medium of exchange for local events and sales of goods and services. They have invited neighbors to display and sell their art. A local disabled veteran has been employed to help keep the storefront and sidewalk tidy. The products offered, the friendliness of the staff, and the comfort of the environment work to further reinforce my choice, once I get in the door. Although I haven’t seen explicit “buy local” signs in their window, that is the message of everything I see and experience there.
As it turns out, the buy-local movement does seem to have legs. But it requires ongoing support and effort in order to meet its potential. Although most of our attention here will be focused on neighborhood-based movements, lessons learned apply to regional and municipal objectives as well.
Can efforts at promoting economic localism consistently produce positive results?
As reported by Becky McCray, author of Small Biz Survival, the answer seems to be yes. The Independent Business Forum (IBF) gathered survey data for the 2007 holiday season. Independent retailers in cities with a buy local campaign reported an average sales gain of approximately 2%. Those in cities without such a campaign saw an increase of less than .5%. In the recession-ravaged 2008 holiday season, those with buy-local campaigns saw losses of 3%. Those without such campaigns had losses of over 5%.
Benefits of buying locally do not accrue only to the person selling the goods and services. Salaries and payments for goods stay in the hands of local residents and local employees. Both merchants and staff are more likely to be your neighbors and are also likely to be spending much of their income locally. An article in the February 27, 2009 “Blumburg’s Business Week” cited a study from Dan Houston of Austin, Texas book and music stores. Spending at local shops during 2002 returned 45 cents on the dollar to the Austin economy, compared to just 13 cents for each dollar spent at Borders. A later analysis by Houston demonstrated that a 10% shift in spending directed to local businesses in Grand Rapids Michigan, could create 1,600 additional local jobs with a payroll of $53 million.
Critics contend that there are other important considerations when deciding where to buy. Customers often have to pay more for goods and services procured locally. They may not have had as large a selection from which to choose. Of course most people are not purists when considering whether to buy local or not. Some goods offered at the big box outlets are just too compelling, depending on circumstances of the moment. Economic localism proponents would urge that the balance at least be shifted more in their direction.
Beyond the purely economic considerations, there are other very strong reasons one may wish to shop locally. As mentioned in a previous “Neighborhood Life” article (Nurturing the Local Economy …, Fall 2010 ) there are certain, difficult-to-quantify joys of gaining a personal familiarity with a local merchant and of participating in the effort to keep them in business. There’s also the pleasure of running into neighbors and acquaintances while shopping. There are ecological considerations: traveling a few blocks (perhaps even walking) vs. traveling to a more distant locale. The prosperity of local merchants and service providers can be a good thing for local non-profit organizations who receive a reported average of 250% more support from local smaller business owners than they do from large businesses.
Promoting economic localism
Objectives of promoting economic localism have been around long enough now for some productive strategies to emerge. Although these may be of primary interest to the providers of goods and services, consumers should be aware of them as well, so we may better understand campaigns that we may witness and more intelligently decide whether to lend support to them. Although many buy-local efforts are focused on cities, we will be primarily looking at those that have neighborhood applicability.
Of foremost importance in producing positive, measurable results seems to be the creation of a united effort. Most neighborhoods already have merchant associations. If the association seems to be a true representative of most local business interests, a buy-local campaign can be originated within the association, or within a subcommittee thereof. If the association only minimally represents local merchants or, perhaps, there is no association in existence, one can be formed for this limited purpose. As with any undertaking, the group should clearly define its goals, intended activities, and means of deciding if goals are being met.
The group should decide on what might be persuasive arguments to use in convincing neighbors that buying locally is a good idea. This will likely include some of the points mentioned above. Also, one may wish to use some of the links provided below to see how other communities have approached this. Beyond that, think of selling points that might resonate with locals, like the names of specific local charities or institutions that have benefited from the generosity of local merchants. Slogans can also be rallying points such as “Keep It In the Loop”, “Buy Close By”, “Preserve Community”, “Think Local First”, and “Keep (name of community) Independent”.
Choose a medium or media to promote your message. A most accessible medium for most has been print … producing flyers, posters or brochures. A particular poster or flyer that appears in many shop windows simultaneously, raises awareness and gives an added impression of neighborhood cohesiveness. For maximum impact, any one campaign should be of limited duration, likely followed by a different approach or a completely redesigned poster.
Although a print campaign may significantly raise awareness and move locals toward increasing support, consider other methods that have been tried, some with substantial success. Some communities issue coupons or local dollars that can be spent only at local shops. Some have held special community events like an evening of shops being open late, perhaps combined with food vendors or music. Local business maps have been produced. Offer discount coupons. Many have had success with frequent-customer punch cards that reward an accumulation of visits to the shop with a freebie or other enticements.
Organize a forum for merchants, service providers and interested neighbors on the general topic of buying local…a one shot meeting so participants don’t have to be concerned about being drawn into a long term commitment. A presentation can be made that explains the concept and outlines what is being done to promote it. Other, not yet engaged, members of the community may then provde additional advice of value on how to promote neighborhood shops and services.
Include information about the buy-local campaign in your business or service’s web site and other advertising or promotions in which you may be engaged. It’s best if these are coordinated, giving recognition to the importance of this being seen as something done for the whole community, not just for increased sales of particular merchant.
If you are operating out of a storefront, make your shop as much an asset to the community as possible, even to those not shopping there currently. Keep up tidy appearances. Make passing by your shop a pleasant experience. To the extent practical and reasonable, decorate. Planters aren’t expensive, and they quickly differentiate you from the questionable aesthetic sensibilities of the big box stores. Display flyers or posters promoting local events. Promote other local merchants and service providers. Be aware of possibilities for offering more locally made products.
There are many potential activities which may raise the level of community support for buying locally. Besides those mentioned above, one may easily search for stories of other specific projects and campaigns.
Of course, you will want to know that your efforts are producing results and will want to provide data to others. In Part II, appearing in the Spring ’12 edition, we will discuss measuring success.
Portland, Maine, Independent Business & Community Alliance
Sustainable Connections: Think Local First
Bloomburg Business Week: To Beat Recession, Indies Launch Buy-Local Push http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/feb2009/sb20090226_752622.htm
Shop Local Campaigns for Small Towns
Baltimore Main Streets: Move Over Malls
Many more useful resources and ideas are to be found on the web. Search “buy local” or “shop local” or “go local” combined with “what works”.
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