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When comedian Steve Martin declared, “Let’s get small,” he could have been coining today’s consumer mantra. Across the nation, shoppers are shifting their purchases to small and local businesses.
During the past holiday season, sales at independent retailers increased by an average of 2.2 percent — about twice as much as overall sales within the U.S. retail industry — according to a survey by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And, to cater to demands for fresh and tasty food, “buy local” grocery sections are sprouting up across the country.
Yet one more sign of the mounting support for mom-and-pop stores: Just over a year after retail consultant and blogger Cinda Baxter started the 3/50 Project, asking people to spend $50 each month at three independently owned businesses, more than 58,000 fans have joined her Facebook page.
Want your business to profit from the burgeoning buy local movement? Here’s how:
1. Triple the Goodness
Shel Horowitz, co-author of the book “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet,” notes that successful buy local strategies usually incorporate three themes to woo shoppers:
•Do good for your community. Advocates say that shopping locally keeps more money in the local economy, while contributing to vibrant downtowns with unique shops. They also maintain that local businesses provide 250 percent more support for local nonprofits than non-local businesses.
•Do good for the world. Proponents point out that locally owned businesses make more local purchases, reducing transportation costs and environmental impact.
•Do good for yourself. Local businesses can offer unique products and a personal touch that large competitors can’t match.
“Even in the most liberal areas, the best marketing will combine self-interest and social good,” says Horowitz. “The good news is, it’s very easy to create messages that hit both.”
2. Spread the Word
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that local retailers in areas with strong buy local or think local campaigns increased sales by an average of 3 percent during the holidays. That’s nearly three times greater than areas without such campaigns.
Businesses use a variety of approaches to spread the word, such as online directories of locally owned businesses, street fairs, neighborhood guides that list and map the businesses, local coupon books, and radio shows about local restaurants and farmers.
In its holiday marketing campaign, Seacoast Local, a New England-based nonprofit, ran a series of print ads in which each featured a photo of a local business owner with a list of the community groups that business supports. The Seacoast Local campaign encouraged residents to shift 10 percent of their purchases to local businesses (the common rallying cry of the buy local movement).
“The word spread like wildfire,” says Jody Breneman, co-owner of G. Willikers, a toy store that has served Portsmouth, N.H., for three decades. “I had people come in the store who said, ‘I saw this product online but I want to buy it here and support local.’”
3. Stick Together
There are approximately 130 local business alliances with some 30,000 independent businesses as members, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The two main organizations that promote buy local campaigns are the American Independent Business Alliance and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. Collectively, the members of these organizations educate and support one another, and some lobby their municipal and state governments to favor local businesses.
For its 30th anniversary, G. Willikers created a window display to showcase other area merchants and organizations, including an ice cream shop, a children’s museum and a homeless shelter. This cross-marketing led to some unusual connections, such as a fine jewelry store that displayed gems intermixed with toys.
“If we don’t have something in stock, we’ll call other local stores to find it,” says Breneman. “We’d rather have the money stay in the community.”
4. Practice What You Preach
The blessings of buy local programs aren’t exclusive to retail stores, says Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “One of the things we’re seeing is that some of the service businesses benefit from increased business-to-business buying among the members.”
This B2B boost comes to light in a recent survey by the buy local program in Portland, Maine: 60 percent of respondents said the campaign prompted them to seek other local businesses for services and goods they previously purchased from non-local sources.
5. Pay It Forward
Every time someone makes a purchase at G. Willikers, the toy store donates 10 cents to a local charity. Before kids leave the store with their favorite new toy, they receive a dime to put in a donation bin, giving them a real sense of community engagement.
“When we give a customer their purchase, we always say, ‘Thank you for shopping locally,’” says Breneman. “It’s simply become part of the language we use.”
Joe Mullich has written about business and marketing topics for Advertising Age, Business Week and many other publications.
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