Think Local, and Gang Up On The Chains

Think Local, and Gang Up On The Chains

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In your efforts to go up against the big boys muscling in on your turf, you’ve probably promoted your years in business, expertise on all aspects imaging, and the selection of photographic products and services found in your store.

But have you talked about the beneficial impact a retail business like yours has on the local economy?

Take that initiative, with the other independent retailers in your area and you’ve got a message which will resonate with civic-minded consumers as you go head to head with the big box chains. In fact, a national survey of almost 1,400 independent retailers of every stripe this past fourth quarter found the desire to shop locally an emerging factor in the choices shoppers make about where to spend their dollars.

The survey, conducted and administered by Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, found retailers in cities with a ”buy local” campaign saw 2007 holiday sales grow two percent over 2006 on average, while business grew only .5 percent for retailers in cities without them. Long term, such a strategy can have even more benefits for participants, individually and collectively.

“One of the key strategies for independent retailers to remain relevant is to tap into citizens’ desire to support the local economy,” Mitchell elaborates. As a researcher, author of Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, and board chair of the American Independent Business Alliance, she’s spent much of her career chronicling the impact large retail chains have on local markets and the business communities there.

“Chains today are capturing one third of all the dollars people are spending in stores, and 1/10 of that is going to Wal-Mart alone,” in her estimation “We’re starting to see a lot more research about the true impact of these big stores on local communities.”

Big Box Blues

In her work, she also addresses the erosive effects of chains and associated retail mega-centers can have on an area’s environment and sense of community. But it is what the chains take away from the local economy that gives independent retailers and other small business owners an especially effective argument to make a case for shopping with them.

Think about it: You and your employees take the dollars generated by sales in your store to buy groceries and gas in the immediate area, go out to the neighborhood theatre, donate to area churches and charities. As the business owner, you advertise in local media; buy from local vendors and businesses, rely on services for professionals there and maybe even sponsor little league and soccer teams.

“It’s really up to independent business owners to point out all the ways they contribute to the local economy,” says Mitchell. “When they make that case, it’s an effective message which gives them an edge.”

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has numbers to back up those claims. In a handout you can download off the BigBoxToolkit.com website (www.bigboxtoolkit.com/images/pdf/Premium.pdf), the institute makes that case in a handout entitled Locally Owned Vs. Chain: The Local Premium. It reports one study found for every $100 spent at a local independently owned businesses generated an additional $68 in local economic activity. That same $100, spent at a chain, put $43 back into the local economy. That difference means less local spending, and the jobs that supports, the group concludes.

“Consumers think they as individuals are just a drop in a bucket, and where they spend their money will not have much impact,” says Mitchell. “But remind them what we can do, working together as a community to support independent retailers and locally-owned businesses. Then they see how they really can make a difference.”

Convincing local shoppers to think of independent retailers and locally owned business as the economic lifeblood of the community, requires a broad-based initiative, says Mitchell. It means reaching across the street and across town to join forces with all other independent business owners affected by the loss of sales dollars which once recirculated into the local economy. One of the most effective “buy local” campaigns was actually started by owners of competing bookstores who joined forces to promote local spending to seed their businesses, she notes

“You have to tell people what the loss of independent retailers and business mean, and what the community can do about it,” she says. “It’s about motivating shoppers on how they can protect the sense of community in the choices they make on where to shop.”

But that requires a community-wide effort, she stresses. And, having consulted with many municipalities and groups which have succeeded, she can describe the course such a project usually takes. First, a handful of local business owners get together and acknowledge the shared challenges they face, and decide they can do something about it. It may be seeded in a local merchants association, the Chamber of Commerce, or by independent operators who assume responsibility for protecting and promoting their own long-term interests.

Once there’s agreement something should be done, the focus becomes developing the buy local campaign, while also trying to solicit the support of a much wider cross section of the local business community. Ideally, a buy local campaign will benefit all their businesses, but many will wait to see something in action before lending their support.

Branding the initiative with its own identity is one of the keys to its success. In cities where these efforts have had measurable impact, there’s a theme or motto and logo which symbolize the campaign and its goals. “To make it work it has to be visually appealing, something people will recognize and remember,” says Mitchell.

Featured in all promotions and signage, it serves as an ongoing reminder of this endeavor and its beneficial impact. Incorporated into decals, signage and store handouts, it also identifies those businesses which are participating, thereby encouraging shoppers to do spend with them and keep their dollars local.

Those who wish to undertake the effort need not start from scratch, says Mitchell. The American Business Alliance (www.amiba.net) offers a $20 tool kit on its website which includes many elements to help local groups start their own program. When there’s enough support and interest they can join the alliance and have full access to the all the resources offered to and shared by its member organizations.

“Everyone who participates in one of these buy local campaigns has another full-time job, running their store or business,” she points out. “We can provide them with much of what they need to get started, without having to do all the work themselves.”

Once everything is in place, it’s time to parlay the commitment into media coverage. Local reporters and media organizations are always responsive to stories which highlight local challenges, and promote local interests. And, they’re more likely to devote space exploring issues facing the entire community and area economy, rather than the plight of an isolated business. She recommends a kick-off event, announcing the campaign, introducing the media to its theme and logo, while also highlighting the plight of the area’s independent businesses, and all that’s at risk in the changing profile of the retail landscape.

At the very least, participating in an effort like this is only gives area shoppers a reason to at least try your store. Ultimately, it’s their experience shopping there which determines the effectiveness of the campaign. “Independent retailers are in business to make a living, but it’s also because they have a real interest in what they are selling,” notes Mitchell.

“That kind of passion brings real value to the marketplace that you just don’t find in a chain store.”

Resources of Interest
Interested in exploring a buy local campaign? Here’s some resources Stacy Mitchell recommends:
• American Independent Business Alliance: www.amiba.net/
• AMIBA Portfolio ($20): www.amiba.net/start.html
• Buy Local Slide Show: www.newrules.org/retail/slides/index.html
• How to Start a Buy Local Campaign Tip Sheet: bigboxtoolkit.com/images/pdf/buylocal_howto.pdf
• Big-Box Swindle: www.bigboxswindle.com
• Big Box Toolkit: www.bigboxtoolkit.com

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