Concerning the buy local movement, "the world in 2008 is a lot different from five to 10 years ago," ABA COO Oren Teicher said at the Independent Retailing session. "There is a growing recognition among American consumers that there is a difference in locally owned businesses and what they can mean. This movement is resonating and growing and becoming a real shaper of the way consumers are making decisions about where to buy."
Carla Jimenez of Inkwood Books, Tampa, Fla., outlined the history of the Tampa Independent Business Alliance, which showed, she said, that even with "a minimum organization and budget and a few people, you can still have an impact." The essential ingredient for success is passion, she added.
The Tampa buy local group started in 2001 and grew rapidly, its organizational structure going from "simple to fairly complicated to simple again." At one point, the group had a nine-member board with four committees. "There was a lot of excitement, but it was the same six or seven people who dedicated their time to this," Jimenez said. Now the group has a five-member board and 150 members. No one in the organization receives a salary except for a student intern. Jimenez has been president but is stepping down.
The Alliance has tried to keep its mission simple: "to raise the consciousness of about the contributions of locally owned businesses," as Jimenez put it. The group has found it "important that every member can articulate its mission in five sentences."
The group celebrates independents week, America Unchained day in November and has an indie fair at a member store. These events lead to live TV and radio and other press coverage. Jimenez added that it's "important to be linked on a national level"--in her case, with AMIBA (the American Independent Business Alliance) and the ABA.
Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler's Books & Magazines, Menlo Park, Calif., started off by saying, "I'm here because I went out of business two years ago." (Kepler's closed for two months in 2005 but reopened after an outpouring of community support.) As a result of the store's "death and rebirth," Kepler saw an opportunity "to be more involved in our community." In the past year, he helped found Hometown Peninsula Independent Business Alliance, which has 60 members. The group has five active board members and is in "a fledgling startup phase," as Kepler put it, focusing on expanding and "educating the members."
At monthly general meetings, the group tries to have presenters with programs that are "interesting and fun and attract people." The alliance is also working on a brochure and created an insert for a local paper that provided information about Hometown Peninsula and the value of shopping locally. The group hopes to hire a part-time employee soon. Hometown Peninsula has talked with Menlo College about participating in its entrepreneurial curriculum as part of an independent business series and have some student interns work on the group's programs.
Betsy Burton, owner of the King's English, Salt Lake City, Utah, discussed Buy Local First Utah. Because Salt Lake City is "weird, but not as weird as Austin," in a conservative state, the group wanted to have a state-wide focus so that it would not be seen as a "representative of a bastion of liberalism," she said. "We wanted to appeal to the whole state." The key to the alliance's effectiveness, she said: "We don't want to be seen as advocates but as educators about the importance of local businesses to the community."
The group has made it easy for businesses to join and requires that they be 51% locally owned and that 100% of business decisions be made locally. There are almost 1,500 members, and the group aims to have 2,000 by the end of the year.
Buy Local First Utah has two annual campaigns and "a raft of events." It features business profiles on its website and has published 30,000 copies of a state business directory.
The group works closely with the Utah and local governments. "We devise ways to make local governments think they can't live without us," Burton said. In many cases, the group is "a line item on county and city budgets."
The alliance receives corporate grants, government loans and grants for development and tourism as well as community investment program grants from banks, something the banks are required to do.
Burton recommended that local business groups have someone on the board who understands how governments work and how to "get money out of corporations." The executive director should excel at public relations and fundraising as well as have "an arsenal of innovative ideas."
She added, "Keep the message positive. Don't attack chains."
Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople, Austin, Tex., offered the perspective of the man who as president of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, better known for its wonderful slogan, Keep Austin Weird, more than anyone else is responsible for the popularity of buy local movements and local business alliances among booksellers.
Bercu counseled that buy local associations require a "fair time commitment to start with." In his case, as president of Keep Austin Weird, he worked on association matters about 10 hours a week for the first five or six years and is now putting in about five hours a week.
He said he is often asked by other retailers if a buy local campaign is "worth it." First off, "staying in business is worth it for me," he said. Also "it's the greatest p.r. media circus I've ever fallen into." The media usually approaches Bercu for comment on many issues. "Several times a week TV comes to BookPeople to film me pontificating," he said. "I always stand in front of the BookPeople sign and wear a BookPeople lanyard." He estimates that he has received $100,000 worth of free advertising in the last few years. In addition, the popular Keep Austin Weird bumper stickers mention BookPeople. "Is it worth it?" Bercu asked, then answered: "Hell yeah!"
Another benefit of such movements is that "businesses in the alliance tend to support each other," Bercu said. "It's not a requirement that members do so, but we certainly hope they would."
Keep Austin Weird now has 650 business members, which together have about 6,000 employees. "We say we are the fifth-largest employer in Austin," Bercu said.
The group has a monthly mixer/network and works with the city's small business development office on programming for quarterly luncheons.
Like Burton, Bercu recommended that local business groups focus on supporting locally owned businesses and not be aligned with political parties. Such an approach "renders us out of the firing line," he added.
"The ramifications of this movement are very big," he continued. "The movement is happening, whether we want it to or not. It's important to be at the center of it."--John Mutter