5 Things To Do Before Starting A “Buy Local” Campaign

A Farmer's Market at Saline, MI (cc Dwight Burdette, 2010)

A Farmer’s Market at Saline, MI (cc Dwight Burdette, 2010)

As the holiday season draws to a close and the New Year looms on the horizon, it seems like a good moment to sit back, draw a deep breath and reflect on the months past. And time to start sorting out those receipts. Let’s face it. The year-end festivities have become one-long shopping extravaganza. The National Retail Federation estimates that the average shopper will part with $740.57, adding up to a whopping $586.1 billion nationwide. Family gifts will make up the biggest share of the budget, a good $420. Shoppers are likely to shell out over $100 on candy and food, $45+ on cards and flowers and $50+ on decor. (Yes, that is right, all that holiday decor adds up to a $6.9 billion industry!)

Where are we spending all this money? Not long ago, holiday shopping meant harried trips to the mall, braving crowds of angry shoppers and desperate missions to locate the must-have toy of the season. With the rise of online shopping and an abundance of deals available on the internet, more and more shoppers are flocking to the great cyber sale. Brick-and-mortar shops have become a place to touch, feel and try the merchandise and get an idea of the current retail prices, a practice known as “showrooming”. Once “showroomers” are convinced they want to buy something, they move to the click-and-pay store online.

While this pervasive trend has even the biggest retailers worried, this shift in shopping behavior has the power to devastate smaller businesses. How do mom-and-pop shops compete in this changing environment? Local businesses are critical to a thriving community, keeping a larger portion of revenue circulating within the neighborhood, bringing in stable jobs and enhancing the distinctive culture of the region. Keeping them alive is an essential step to building our economy from the bottom up. One way to help small enterprises compete is to unite them under a local brand and promote them as a thriving collective. Such promotional measures are variously known as “Buy Local”, “Think Local” or “Local First” campaigns and nearly 40,000 firms participate in 140-odd programs across the nation.

Despite the growing enthusiasm for such programs and a doubling of the number of such initiatives since 2005, not all campaigns have been as successful as, say, Bellingham, WA or Austin, TX. Planners often take a campaign that was run elsewhere and apply it as-is to their community. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Asking consumers to shop locally requires some forethought. Not all communities are suited for a generic message and planners need to consider the unique characteristics of their region before moving into the implementation stage. Below are five steps to take even before you start thinking of launching a “Buy Local” initiative in your backyard.

Define “Local”: How narrow or wide should your definition of “local” be? “Local” could be as small as a single town to a state-wide effort. Does “local business” include non-national chain stores? Does the business have to produce its goods in the region to be considered? This step will form the foundation of a cohesive and unambiguous campaign.

Create a Retail Map : Understanding the availability and distribution of goods and services within the local area is the logical next step. Certain communities are located in “retail blindspots”, these neighborhoods are not serviced by chain stores and malls. Promoting any home-grown business in these communities is a no-brainer. In some areas, it is much more worthwhile to highlight locally-grown or produced products may be unique to the region, such as fine wines or cheese.  A successful “Buy Local” campaign should focus its energies on those community needs that are currently not met or poorly met by existing chain businesses.

Talk to local business owners: In many neighborhoods, locally-grown produce, great local eateries and mom-and-pop operations, such as hairdressers, provide much-needed services to their neighbors. These businesses would certainly gain from a “Local First” push. Some other businesses that are based locally but provide services for a broad client base, for example, accounting or legal advice, may not see the benefits of signing up. It is critical to understand the specific needs of the different local businesses before your campaign clubs them under one broad umbrella.

Build a target customer profile: Even the most well-thought out campaign will not appeal to all shoppers in the community. Buying decisions are influenced by a number of factors and it is extremely unrealistic to assume that every customer in the area will buy locally all the time. Planners must, however, attempt to identify those types of shoppers who will prioritize a local business over a non-local one for certain goods and services. Understanding the motivations and decision-making processes of these ideal shoppers will help build a stronger, more focused message.

Determine ways to evaluate success: Thinking ahead to the evaluation phase is a smart thing to do. Factors to consider include; gross sales, number of business members, number of new customers, percentage of customers’ budget spent locally, public dollars invested in main street restoration and the number of local residents who recognize and understand the Buy Local message. This will help recruit local business owners and help set targets for the campaign once it is up and running.

If you see a clear opportunity for a successful Buy Local campaign, head on over to the resources provided by the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) and Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) on starting a campaign in your community.


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