"Shop Local" - Does it Really Work?

Supporting Local Businesses during Independents Week and All-Year Long

Business Opening in Souderton, PA

"Buy Local" campaigns have been around for years, with their popularity waxing and waning, depending on the economy and trends. But one question has remained: do they make a difference in the local economy?  Now, independent research provides surprising evidence on how local Main Street programs can make the most of the trend toward "localism".  Read about the most successful campaigns, and how to tie your efforts into the national "Independents Week" this July.

The American Independent Business Alliance's (AMIBA) Independent's Week event, which celebrates local independent businesses, is coming up on July 1-7, 2009. While "Buy Local" or "Buy Local First" campaigns can't revitalize a commercial district by themselves, they can be a useful tool in contributing to consumer awareness and boosting the vitality of your Main Street. This week we invite you to consider a buy local campaign for your community all year round, and encourage your organization to participate in AMIBA's national promotion of America's independent businesses.

From architectural gems to special events, many attractions draw people to Main Street, but local businesses are really what make, well, a business district. "Shop local" campaigns are tools for supporting your local, independent businesses. Most likely, your community's favorite businesses are more than places where money exchanges hands. When you think about the restaurants, shops, and service providers in your community, are they popular destinations? Are they places where people enjoy gathering and patronizing? Are they run by your neighbors? Are they places that specialize in goods or services steeped in local heritage or culture? Do they offer a special experience?

Local business owner in Libertyville, IL

Successful independent businesses contribute to the tax base, meet consumer demand, and add vibrancy to a community. But, they also bring stability. A survey by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) revealed that, during the 2008 holiday shopping season, sales at more than a thousand independent retailers across the country declined an average of 5 percent from the same time last year. While declining sales are nothing to write home about, national chains suffered steeper declines during the same time period.

What's more, the ILSR survey found that independent retailers surveyed reported an average drop in sales of 3.2 percent compared to a steeper decline of 5.6 percent for those in cities without an active "Buy Local" initiative. In 2005, Applied Research Northwest found that a three-year shop local campaign in Bellingham, Oregon, and the surrounding Whatcom County prompted 58 percent of survey participants to patronize local independent businesses more often than before the campaign started, and 86 percent are spending the same or more money with local businesses than they did before the campaign. For all of us here at the National Trust Main Street Center, local, independent businesses make all the difference to a community.

When creating a shop local campaign, understand that while some people shop at local independent businesses out of a sense of community loyalty or because they're interested in sustainability, most will not. Resist the temptation to "guilt" people into shopping locally. Any attempt to make shoppers feel that they are doing something wrong by patronizing businesses outside your district will likely backfire. Your challenge is to get people to choose your Main Street's businesses because they have something of value that the competition lacks. For a "Shop Local First" campaign to be an effective part of your revitalization strategy, it must be more than a catchy slogan.

We often associate "Shop Local" campaigns with decals in the windows of participating local businesses, but a campaign must be more than that. Your organization will have to infuse the promotion of your district into everything it does:

  • Publicize your local businesses and your initiative in newspaper columns, blog postings, interviews, and all other communication channels.
  • Make it easy for shoppers to find businesses by displaying your district directories/maps on brochure racks at area tourism bureaus, chambers of commerce, and rest stops, as well as distributing them to local businesses.
  • Create an online business directory—bonus points for making it interactive.
  • Capture people's attention with a great slogan—some creative ideas include the Athens, Georgia, slogan "Shop Your Ath-off" or Green Bay's On Broadway District's "The Mall-ternative."
  • Design a logo to put in ads, banners, and yes, on decals to spread the word. Feature local businesses in your newsletter or online and also ask them to include the Shop Local logo in their ads and websites.
  • Have your economic restructuring committee work with the municipality, area banks, and other organizations to develop incentives and assistance that support independent businesses and help them thrive.
  • Explain to shoppers that by patronizing local businesses they are helping keep their favorite Main Street establishments open and are contributing to the vitality of the local economy.

"Shop Here Fauquier" sign from Warrenton, VA

There are plenty of ways to put a creative twist on your campaign. For example, the City of Redman in Oregon encouraged people to shop locally by subsidizing a Downtown Dollars program in anticipation of the holiday shopping season. Customers bought discounted certificates that could be spent in downtown Redman. Its program was so successful that Redman will issue another round of Downtown Dollars, selling them at 25 percent of the dollar cost.

Supporting your local businesses all year round is important to keep a Shop Local campaign alive in the minds of customers. However, every year, communities can participate in a national event to celebrate their local independents. We encourage your Main Street program to participate in the American Independent Business Alliance's (AMIBA) Independent's Week event, July 1-7, 2009. AMIBA's website has event ideas, posters and logos for download, talking points, press release templates, and more to help your community plan its participation.

Visit the Independent's Week website and share with us your community's plans for participating.