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5 Ways to Help Your Community Go Local

Buy Independent and Buy Local campaigns have a big effect, according to a new survey of independent businesses. Here’s how you can reap the benefits for your local economy.

Jeff Milchen

For four consecutive years, Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) has undertaken a unique research project, surveying thousands of independent businesses across the United States about their holiday season sales figures.
The results of ILSR's latest survey (measuring sales for last
Thanksgiving through Christmas) offered encouraging news for
entrepreneurs battered by the recession and for organizations working to
sustain vital communities.

Independent businesses in communities with an active Buy Independent / Buy Local (BIBL) campaign
reported the strongest figures since the surveys began-a 5.6 percent
increase over the previous holiday season. This increase was more than
two and a half times the gain (2.1 percent) reported by independent
businesses located in areas lacking such a campaign.

Among independent retailers, which comprised just under half of
nearly 2,800 surveys tabulated, the contrast was even more dramatic.
Those in communities with BIBL campaigns experienced a 5.2 percent
increase in holiday sales, while retailers elsewhere reported an average
gain of just 0.8 percent.

While the survey proves correlation, not causation, the consistently positive numbers each year
for businesses served by these local alliances is powerful evidence
that sustained and sophisticated campaigns can shift local culture.

In addition to the sales figures, nearly two-thirds of survey
respondents said public awareness of the benefits of supporting locally
owned businesses had increased in the last year and 55 percent said
their local campaigns had made existing customers more loyal.

"Independent Business Alliances and 'buy local' campaigns are
becoming a basic tool for independent businesses to help differentiate
themselves from their big-box and Internet competition by highlighting
their meaningful connection to the community," said Kathleen McHugh,
director of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association. ASTRA was among many independent trade associations to cooperate in the survey.

While not every local alliance is politically active, many consciously seek to build a counterforce to institutions like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
and state groups that serve large corporate interests, so participating
alliances were pleased to learn more than half of survey respondents in
BIBL communities said local government officials had become more aware
and supportive of independents' concerns.

Want to help your and your neighbors' dollars stay in your community? Here are five ideas:

Five Ways to Help Your Community Go Local

  1. As a consumer, look at the big stuff first. Our choices for bank accounts,
    groceries, and energy consumption, for example, can play a big role in
    helping promote local self-sufficiency. Some groups ask residents to shift 10 percent of their spending from outside entities or chains to local businesses.
  2. As a citizen, exercise your right to participate in spending decisions. Learn where your tax money is spent. Can your city or town source more office supplies from local dealers? More school lunches from local ranchers and farmers?
    Are local governments using local insurers, banks, and suppliers? Learn
    about the current situation from purchasing officials (including their
    opinions) and available tools, such as local purchasing preferences and farm to school programs to inform suggestions.
  3. Utilize the power of anchor institutions.

    Just as with government entities, shifting the spending of hospitals,
    prisons, museums and other community-rooted institutions can create huge positive impacts
    and new opportunities. These institutions often have public service as
    part of their mission, and often are open to citizen input. Community-Wealth.org provides a vast array of tools to help you get started.

    Also
    if you support local civic groups, youth sports teams, etc., learn
    where they're going for their needs. It's stunning how often local
    non-profit groups will solicit independent businesses for donations, yet
    buy their food, supplies, printing, etc. from chain competitors.

  4. Help provoke a pro-local business alliance. The
    key word is provoke! Most of us don't have time to create new
    organizations, but as the success of local businesses and community
    alliances grows, arranging an effective public meeting often will ignite
    ongoing organizing.
  5. Differentiate our roles as citizens vs. consumers. While
    shifting consumer decisions is a core goal of any educational efforts,
    the most influential community campaigns inspire residents to recognize
    their power and responsibility to guide the community's future.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Jeff Milchen

Jeff Milchen founded Reclaim Democracy! He is an organizer, speaker and writer helping advance entrepreneurship, grassroots democracy and self-reliant communities. Follow him on Twitter:  @JMilchen

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