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Best of Boston 2009

Indie economy

Portland’s new Buy Local campaign is playing nice, for now
By SARA DONNELLY  |  December 6, 2006
Buy Local Sign

Carolyn Mix is one of Buy Local’s newest converts. Owner of the 2Note botanical perfumery, which has been open in the Old Port for about six months, Mix says she joined Portland’s new coalition of independent businesses because she believes in the cause.

The Buy Local cause — to support businesses in Portland whose owners live in or near the city — is gearing up for its first holiday shopping season amid a localism craze sparked by the prospect of a certain busty chain restaurant opening in the downtown. Since Mike Harris announced his plan to open a Hooters restaurant in the Stadium building on Free Street, the city council has passed two ordinances banning chain retailers and restaurants — one limiting formula stores in the downtown, and the other, passed Monday night, banning high-traffic businesses in neighborhoods around Portland.

Portland’s Buy Local campaign, which launched in July and has 184 participating businesses, including restaurants, independent contractors, and dozens of retailers, has not taken a public stand on the city's policy changes, though they are intended to protect the same mom-and-pop businesses Buy Local covets. In fact, the campaign hasn’t decided how local Portland should go. Buy Local’s president and vice president are united by their emphasis on collective marketing and education to level the playing field with chains, but they differ on how happily Portland’s indies can exist alongside their corporate competitors.

“I could live without ever seeing another chain again,” says Bill Duggan, president of Buy Local, whose store Videoport shares a building with the popular regional chain Bull Moose Music. “If everybody in Portland all of a sudden found everything they need at a locally owned business and a couple of these large corporations had to close a few units up in this part of the country because they couldn’t hack it, that would be fine, because our economy would be so much improved.”

But Buy Local co-founder and vice-president Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis who specializes in independent retail, takes a more measured tone for the young campaign.

“I think the main point here is that we should think about locally owned businesses as a first option,” Mitchell says. “I might like to see people doing large, large percentages of their shopping locally, but at the moment we just want to get the trend heading in the other direction. That’s mainly the idea, to reverse what has been a trend in Portland and elsewhere, with more and more dollars going to national chains. How far we can take that, I think, is an open-ended question.”

Imported advice
How far Portland consumers should take buying locally is also up for debate. Mitchell points to studies showing that independent businesses contribute more to their local economies than do chains, including her own study in midcoast Maine that found local businesses spent 44.6 percent of their annual revenue in-state in 2002, compared with Wal-Mart’s 14.1 percent of revenue. Neither Mitchell nor the city have done similar studies of independent businesses in Portland, so the Portland Buy Local campaign is using a series of posters, “Top Ten Reasons to Buy Local” provided by the American Independent Business Alliance, a coalition of 32 buy-local efforts around the country, based in Bozeman, Montana. The posters, a key part of Buy Local’s marketing push, detail what buy-local activists believe are the economic and ethical reasons for shopping locally — including that independent businesses nurture community and give consumers more choices. Mitchell says Portland’s Buy Local campaign may conduct a survey of shoppers in the downtown after the holidays to gauge the success of the effort.

But Portland economist and Muskie School of Public Policy professor Charlie Colgan, who specializes in community economic development issues, believes Buy Local’s efforts to convince consumers that indies necessarily contribute more to the local economy than do chains are misguided.

“It’s too simple a description of the world to say that local people do all their business locally and if you’re from out of state, you do all your business out of state,” he says.

Colgan points out other problems with the local-is-better argument — including that the net benefit to local economies from consumers shopping locally could be outweighed by the higher prices independent retailers often charge. If consumers pay more for goods, they have less money to buy other goods, which could damage the local economy. Poorer consumers who depend on the low prices big-box stores provide often don’t have the luxury of prioritizing local businesses and, in small urban centers like Portland, dollars spent locally often leave the state anyway, since many retailers import their goods.

“Just because the owner’s in the region, it’s not a bad thing, but there’s no guarantee that the regional economy is necessarily bigger as a result,” Colgan explains.

Godfrey Wood also has concerns about the Buy Local campaign. Wood is president and CEO of the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1452 members, including independent businesses and big-box chain stores. Wood worries the Buy Local campaign could divide the retail community. “I need to point out that we have a lot of businesses in Greater Portland that are not locally owned that provide a ton of great jobs and great benefits to people who live here,” he says. “So we need to make sure we’re supporting our local people, both owners and employees.”

Fast start or slow?
For the time being, Mitchell, author of the book Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailersand the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses (see “Inside the Box,” by Sara Donnelly, November 10), says the goal of the campaign she helped found is not to empty chain businesses but to tempt shoppers to opt for local stores more often. While the Maine Mall and Portland’s Downtown District trot out concerts, carriage rides, and extended hours to woo consumers during the crucial-to-retailers holiday shopping season, Portland’s Buy Local campaign will continue on at a happily steady pace — complementing its decals and “Top Ten Reasons” posters with holiday posters (made locally by artist Carrie Byrne) distributed to a select few participating businesses.

The campaign’s board will meet after the New Year to plan its future marketing efforts, which Mitchell says will likely include a revamped Web site with a directory of local businesses categorized by type. Duggan says Buy Local may try to develop programs to support local small business entrepreneurs. But, apart from plans to beef up the Web site, a passive form of marketing unlikely to attract new converts, Buy Local’s plan of action isn’t set in stone.

Jennifer Rockne of the Montana-based AMIBA advises Portland’s Buy Local campaign. She says the Portland group, an AMIBA affiliate, has “come out of the blocks faster than any other independent business alliance” by growing rapidly and launching a visible campaign within six months of forming, thanks in large part to generous local media coverage. (Portland’s rock-bottom dues of $20 a year, the cheapest of any of the AMIBA members, which average dues between $100-$200, has also helped Buy Local quickly attract dozens of local businesses in a city that small business owners readily admit is already friendly to indies.) As for the future, Rockne is encouraging the group to develop partnerships with Portland city government to find ways to encourage local business growth.

Mix, who co-owns the 2Note boutique with her friend Darcy Doniger, hopes Buy Local will help indie business achieve a “balance” with South Portland's regional shopping magnet, the Maine Mall, where boutiques like the Body Shop compete with her store for customers.

"I think Buy Local is a great asset to small businesses in terms of giving them a voice that big businesses already have,” she says.

But maybe that voice should be louder. So far, none of Mix’s customers have said they came to her store because of the Buy Local campaign.

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Sara Donnelly:

  Topics: Lifestyle Features , American Independent Business Alliance, Beauty Products, Business,  More more >
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