Are We Really Thinking Local First?

There’s a lot of talk about “buy local” campaigns these days, but how well do they actually work? The Institute for Local Self-Reliance seeks to answer that question with hard numbers in its annual Independent Business Survey.

Think Local First of Washtenaw County surveys its members and contributes data to the national study each year, gathering information on local independent business’ sales, the challenges facing them, and how the Think Local First campaign impacts them. Concentrate spoke with Think Local First executive director Ingrid Ault about what we can learn from the local data collected this year. (Editor's Note: Ms. Ault resigned her posiition with Think Local First yesterday (5/13/14). The Interim executive director is Jud Branam)

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What were some of the major findings of this year’s study?
Sales growth is up in communities that have a “buy local” message, campaigns such as Think Local First. We saw three times the growth than in communities without it. That is no different for our community. There are some big challenges to small businesses and the Internet sales tax is one of them. Access to credit is another, although we found that [Washtenaw County] respondents who actually did look for small business loans were in almost all cases able to find them. Public policy issues were also an issue, such as capping credit card swipe fees and lowering taxes.

Why are “buy local” campaigns having this effect? Are people unaware of the variety of local businesses that are available to them, or do they not realize the importance of supporting them?
I think it’s a combination of both. It’s all about telling your business’ story. Part of your story is that you’re local, part of your story is the product that you sell or the service that you provide, and also how you give back to the community because that’s also a big part of it. It is really important to actively work within the community to deliver your message.

Do you see room for improvement with Think Local First’s impact? 
There’s definitely room for improvement. One area that we really need to make outreach in, and we’re looking at ways to do that, is making in-roads into the millennial generation and helping them understand that local independent businesses are important to their community. 

In addition to the percentage of respondents that said Think Local First had had a positive effect on their business, an overwhelming majority said public awareness of the benefits of supporting local business had increased in the past year. What other factors would you attribute that to?
The media has done a really good job of helping us talk about why local businesses are important. The more that you understand how you spend your dollar in the community, the more it impacts the decisions that you make about how you do that.

Washtenaw County businesses did much better than the national average when it came to getting bank loans. Why is that?
We have some local, independently owned banks that really value the small businesses in our community. I think that’s a major reason why our businesses have done far better. We have bankers who understand the importance of how they contribute to the economy, and they’re willing to invest in them. 

Washtenaw County businesses ranked competition from large brick-and-mortar companies as their greatest challenge, as opposed to competition from large Internet companies, which was ranked as the top challenge overall in the national survey. Are the complaints about the proliferation of big-box retailers in downtown Ann Arbor an accurate assessment of what's going on?
One of the things we have seen, at least for retailers if not for all businesses, is being priced out of the market on Main Street and, to a certain extent, Liberty St. too. We’ve got Life Is Good, “A Genuine Neighborhood Shoppe” [on Main]. What a title, for something that’s actually part of a chain. It’s that muddling, mixed message. We’re not anti-chain. We just think everybody should have an opportunity to have a piece of the pie, and what we are seeing is that pie is shrinking on high-traffic corridors.