Local Motion Part 1

Get on board the “Buy Local” movement and tap into enthusiastic support for your independent store!
by : 

Maggie Feeney

January 9, 2014

(Part 1 of a 3-part series)

[Jump to Part 2] | [Jump to Part 3]

Ask anyone to name their favorite shop, restaurant, or service provider and chances are their first response would not be a national chain but, rather, the independent shop around the corner. News stories have been spreading like wildfire touting the edge mom-and-pop stores have on their big-box competitors, an edge experts say is helping small businesses fight back David-and-Goliath style against the national chains. What’s the secret weapon? In a word, connection.

Small independents are able to build relationships with their customers, a phenomenon that doesn’t fit the big-box business model. Locally owned stores have a personal connection with their towns in a real, lasting way—they are part of the fabric of their communities. Think of your own store and the customers who shop there. Chances are they know you and your staff personally through all sorts of interactions outside of your shop, from book clubs to church to the schools your kids attend. Your store is the antidote to their fast-paced, screen-saturated lives, and that’s why even though you may not be able to compete with the big boxes on price, yours is the store shoppers love.

Sure, consumers are price-conscious, but especially when it comes to gifts, they also want to buy things of value, things that are unique and interesting. What national chains have that indie shops like yours don’t is the ability to blanket a community with a multi-million dollar wrap-around marketing campaign, making it seemingly impossible to achieve equal “airplay” in order to advertise the wonderful products you carry.

Enter the “Buy Local” movement.

Buy Local organizations are nothing new—the first launched in Boulder, Colo., in 1998—but with the help of such heavyweights as Small Business Saturday sponsor American Express, the concept of shopping locally has spread to communities large and small all over the country. The once-grassroots campaigns have “grown up” into sophisticated organizations capable of taking on the big-box marketing machines and winning.

Buy Local isn’t just about marketing. It also helps strengthen small businesses as they root and establish themselves, while helping maintain those that have weathered the storm for years. The Buy Local movement reminds customers why putting their dollars into local businesses matters more than free shipping from Amazon or buy-three-get-one-free deals from Walmart. Sure, people could buy gifts at any big box for ridiculously low prices, but those items were likely manufactured overseas in a factory with workers who didn’t receive a living wage and with substances that are not only bad for the environment but bad for us … but you already know this. What you might not know is how to kick-start Buy Local in your community, so let’s get started.

Sign me up!

Buy Local isn’t just about putting up a sign in your store saying “Buy Local,” it’s about creating a network of locally owned businesses who can pool resources and create dynamic marketing campaigns and events that drive shoppers to your stores. There is no magic formula for starting a Buy Local business network, but there are things you can do to get the ball rolling and rally the “localists.”

First, find out if there’s already a Buy Local group in your town. It might not have “Buy Local” in the name, but it will be a group that promotes shopping local. If you’re new to owning a business, you might not be connected to the local business scene, but your store has neighbors, right? Ask neighboring businesses or contact the local chamber of commerce or local newspaper.

If you find there already is a local organization promoting shopping locally, they may be operating in a very grassroots way (hint: if you didn’t already know about them, they probably aren’t marketing themselves well or consistently). Encourage them to connect to national organizations helping local businesses thrive, such as BALLE and AMIBA. Membership in BALLE (the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, www.bealocalist.org) unlocks a variety of support resources for your local effort, such as webinars, presentations, events, manuals, case studies, and more. AMIBA (the American Independent Business, www.amiba.net) offers membership benefits for local groups that includes an organizer’s how-to handbook, templates for creating organizational documents, consultation, conferences, marketing materials, and more.

What if you discover there’s no local group … yet. If you want to increase your own business and strengthen your local independent business community, start by identifying other local businesses that are ready to jump on the Buy Local bandwagon. You don’t need to build your Buy Local group yourself, but you may need to get the ball rolling initially. This means getting to know your fellow indie businesses if you don’t already, because there’s no point in calling a formal meeting before you’ve even gauged individual interest, let alone gotten to know people by name.

Strategize your outreach

A lot can be accomplished over a cup of coffee, so start reaching out to a few business owners one by one over a hot cuppa joe. Heck, the local coffee shop owner is a great person to start with and if they don’t know your name, they probably already know you by your drink order! Be strategic about this: Contact business owners you respect, that are well liked in the community, and that have a positive attitude. It will help if you also target businesses that are already promoting the idea of shopping locally!

Before you dive head-first into your latté binge … er … I mean meeting, take some time to learn about the concrete benefits to being involved in a Buy Local business alliance, so you can convey those pluses to others. Some tangible benefits include:

  • Fostering cross-promotion of your businesses
  • Creating more effective co-branded marketing campaigns
  • Improving the overall perception of local businesses
  • Establishing a niche that differentiates members from big-box chains
  • Creating an identifiable town “welcome mat” or “front door”
  • Fostering strong and mutually beneficial relationships with fellow businesses
  • Creating a shopping experience for locals and tourists alike
  • Establishing a sense of pride and identity in being a local independent business

If you find a few takers during your “caffeine sessions,” make sure to ask them what days and times work best for them and jot down their cell phone number and personal email to make it easy to follow up later. Once you’re ready to call a meeting, you can use one of the free online meeting schedulers such as Doodle (www.doodle.com) or NeedToMeet (www.needtomeet.com) to streamline the scheduling process. These tools allow you to send attendees a link to fill in their meeting availability and then reports back to you the available times that overlap for everyone.

[Continued in Part 2]

Maggie Feeney is Editor in Chief of Retailing Insight.