“Buy Local” … or maybe not!

“Every time I step out on stage, I know the people in the audience work hard to afford a ticket to one of my shows … so I have to prepare, work as hard as I can and do my best to make sure they get their money’s worth” ~ Alicia Moore (aka P!NK)

The chorus of “Buy Local” has become the new “Buy American.” This is especially the case with all the corporate shenanigans going on. The executives of Monsanto, Wells Fargo and B of A should be in jail. Wal-Mart is doing its best to decimate local economies, forcing themselves into communities by all nefarious means possible. And twenty-nine hours a week is the new full-time, since it falls under the federally mandated health insurance requirements.

The only way us ‘common folk’ can fight back is to buy local. And it makes sense. Only 15% of the revenue from a big box store like Wal-Mart or Target finds its way into the local economy – while the rest goes to national or international suppliers, stockholders and C-level management to points unknown. Compare that to 54+% that stays in town with a locally owned store. And these statistics are even more dramatic in the restaurant industry where 79% of local restaurant revenue stays local, compared to only 30% from the national chains.Hard to argue with those numbers. You buy locally and you help your neighbors and probably yourself as well. You don’t … you won’t.

Red Lodge main Street

“I’ll take the first step … but please help me out!” 

While buying locally may cost a few more cents on the dollar, I would hope still most us would be willing to help out our community. And by patronizing local business, in theory you should get better service. After all, your neighbors know you or at least should feel a ‘kinship’ with you.

Technically local businesses should have an unfair advantage. In addition to their knowledge of their customers, they can adjust to local market conditions. In the time it takes for a big box store to even get market intelligence – their local competition is out the gate with a new set of products and a promotion to match. Combine that with their superior customer service – any premium put on big box price should be discounted.

In theory, this should be the case. But such is not necessarily the way it is.

Recently, I’ve been helping out my parents in Montana. As with most people in their 70’s and 80’s, health-care is a constant issue. And central to elderly health-care is prescription drugs and their relationship with their pharmacy. Such is the case with my parents and their primary pharmacy – which is locally owned.

My parents have been very good customer of (a pharmacy that will remain nameless) for twenty plus years. You would think that sort of relationship would warrant at the very least, good service. Rather than go into copious detail, lets just say … the help is rude, seldom is a prescription sent out when promised, and they charge extra just to put something in the mail. And don’t you dare bring up the idea of a less expensive alternative drug. Who am I to say anything! I don’t have the letters after my name.

Yet this business will be the first to complain about the invasion of Walgreens and CVS.

“We can’t compete because of the bulk buying advantage the giants have. We can’t compete against their advertising budgets.”

No mention is made of the fact that (a pharmacy that will remain nameless) has been a member of the Billings community for decades, serving generations of customers. Nor is there any mention of the advantage they have because of their key location, right on the ground floor of the main hospital in the city – a location they procured shortly after the hospital was built.

Their negative attitude is evident with their employees also. It’s as if they’re just waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop” And the way they act, when that shoes drops … they act like they’ll be waiting in line for a bed at the homeless shelter on Montana Ave. They don’t say it, but it’s almost like it’s a requirement to shop there if you live in Billings. After all, they’re a local business – and aren’t you supposed to support local business!

And unfortunately, this is just one of the examples I regularly encounter here with local businesses. Thank god for my favorite pet store to help balance things out. Who can resist when it’s time for Reptilemania!

Here’s my conundrum. I am adamantly in favor of buying local. Personally I think by bringing the power back to Main Street, we can retake our country and our lives from the unscrupulous corporate hacks that have hijacked it. This extra injection of money and entrepreneurial opportunity into our communities can go to help our children’s schools, our elderly, our less fortunate … and on top of it, our own wallets.

Can man crop

Be a partner in your community’s local businesses

I’m willing to you give the first chance if you’re local, and I may even give you a second chance if you screw up. But you have to show me you want my business and you care about me. If you don’t already know me – take the time to get to know me. Then call me by my name – and remember what I buy (or at least if I buy it a lot). If you get a deal on something you know I like, let me know and let me share in your savings. Show me you’re part of the community and want to make it better … like the chain stores can’t. Make me part of your extended family – and I’ll do the same and I’ll be loyal. It won’t matter if I have to pay a couple of dollars more – you’re family.

But to justify those couple of dollars, you have to show it and meet me half way. I don’t want a “woe is me” attitude from your employees – or you. I want you to understand that having a business in my community, in my neighborhood – is not a right, it’s a privilege … a privilege that can be taken away by me, and by my neighbors.

If you’re cool with all this – then you’ll have a great customer. You’ll have great customer that’s loyal and will refer their friends to you.

My conditions may seem a bit harsh, but they have to be. Owning a business isn’t supposed to be easy. But at least you know where I stand and you can act accordingly. And if I see something I think you can improve on, don’t be defensive … because I’m going to tell you. Most people just defect and run to the big box stores without any notice. I’m laying my cards on the table. It’s not only in your best interest to get better … it’s in mine and our community’s. We want you to stay in business.

My goal here is to increase the communication between the merchant and the customer. This communication will result in a feedback loop that will make the small business compete better against the Wall Street chains. Be an informal consultant for your community’s local businesses. Tell them what they did right … and tell them what they’ve done wrong (but do it tactfully). Your community’s small businesses are not your adversaries. On the contrary, they’re your teammate in your effort to strengthen the community you all live in. The enemy are the big box stores and chain stores that “grab the money and run” to a place far, far away.

Be your local business’s eyes and ears in the community. If they don’t provide something you have to go to a chain for … tell them. Be a partner in their business. Help create the symbiotic relationships and infrastructure that will strengthen your community … not weaken it. It’s through commerce with these local merchant that a community takes on its unique identity and nurtures the ‘space’ that acts as a conduit to rebuilding the ‘Middle Ring’ of neighborhood relationships necessary for a community to function at its fullest.

I wish just that being local was enough for me to be a customer “forever after.”  But like any relationship, it takes work and work … and then some more work.

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can find on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+

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2 thoughts on ““Buy Local” … or maybe not!

  1. Clay, Well put. We at AMIBA fully agree that locals don’t deserve anyone’s business–only an opportunity to earn it. But please note that, according to extensive national surveying, the Billings pharmacy is an exception to the rule in that sector: http://bit.ly/1CqMo1C And indie pharmacies actually beat the chains on price! See 5th graph at: http://is.gd/indiegraphs

    Lastly, I immodestly suggest this page http://bit.do/multiplier as the best resource on the multiplier effect and credible data.

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