“Local” is about more than a zip code
When “buy local”/”shop local” messaging hit its stride two years ago, big boxes and national chains quickly realized their corner on marketplace visibility was being eclipsed. Cost-conscious consumers were not only thinking about the price of an item, but the impact of where they purchased it. Before long, we saw mega-retailers repackaging the “buy local” message to include themselves—they’d procure broccoli from a nearby grower, then advertise themselves as part of the “local” movement. Carry meat packaged by a company located in a nearby town, then tell consumers they were buying “local.”
Uh yeah…not so much.
Well, Chapter Two of The Repackaging of Buy Local has begun to roll out, and it’s even more troubling.
To really understand its impact, we need to first remind ourselves what the phrase “buy local” was initially intended to mean. “Buy local,” “shop local,” local first,” and other similar tag lines focused on one of two things: The source of a product and/or the point of purchase—neither of which being a large, national corporate entity. These were “independent” businesses with no outside branded support. You know…the little guys.
When the economy slid south, then stayed there, consumers began thinking—actually thinking!–-about the impact of their spending habits. Sure, the majority are still frequenting big boxes for the best deal, but many have begun to recognize that convenience comes with its own price tag. Big boxes and national chains send their revenue out of town. Lots of it. Most of it. And that means less money for the folks who live in that community. For their fire department. The police department. The city streets.
Their quality of life.
Fast forward to Chapter Two.
Since the first attempt to jump on the local bandwagon fared poorly, a new game plan is being rolled out. Now, either on their own or with the help of community organizations, the message is being twisted by insinuation that “local” is all about location—which includes every single national chain and big box in town. This usurped version of “buy local” is being packaged as “Buy Mayberry” (or whatever the town’s name is), arguing that any purchase made with any business in town brings equal revenue home. Not so. Not even close.
Now…before someone begins throwing darts this direction…let me be clear. Not all “Buy Mayberry” programs include big boxes, franchises, and national chains. Many are built to support the merchants in town that are 100% locally owned, no national or regional branding, no outside corporate help. All local all the time. They give the most back. They should get the most attention.
But many are rolling out an ill-conceived message that spending with a nearby mega-store does as much financial good for the community as selecting an independent merchant. Which is simply not true.
From the study provided by Civic Economics:
For every $100 spent with a local, independent brick and mortar business, $68 returns to the local economy. Spend the same $100 with a big box or national chain and only $43 remains in the local economy.
Then, there’s the addition of internet sales, from The 3/50 Project:
Spend that same $100 online, and unless you live in the exact same community as the e-tailer, nothing comes home.
National chains bank out of town (for all but very few of us, out of state).
They don’t replenish business consumables via local stores.
They don’t bring new jobs to town; they displace that number of employees currently working for other local businesses.
When they make a charitable donation, it goes to the charity’s national office, not the local chapter (and certainly not the small non-profits who have no national office).
They don’t pay the same property tax rates small businesses do—theirs is negotiated lower.
They simply don’t put the money back into the town it comes from.
Yes, big boxes and national chains are here to stay, and yes, they play a role in the local economy. But I strongly advise any community considering a “Buy Mayberry” (or similar) promotion be very, very clear about who, exactly, it is they’re promoting.
If your plan includes big boxes and national chains, it’s not ”local.” It’s corporate. It’s about zip codes. And it will cost your community dearly long term.
That’s a pretty steep price to pay for short term, feel-good visibility.