Challenge Five: Buy Local

As a consumer, you make choices everyday between competing businesses, such as whether to buy your morning coffee at Starbucks, Tim Hortons or an independent coffee shop. The choice of where to spend your money sends a signal through the marketplace that ultimately influences which types of businesses will succeed and which will falter.

Along with thousands of other consumers, your purchasing decisions can have significant impacts on the local community and the environment. This is nowhere more evident than in the choice between buying at locally owned businesses versus corporate chains. Shopping at local businesses helps to keep more money within the local economy, provides more employment opportunities locally, and reduces the environmental impacts with shipping from distant locations. More benefits of buying locally are listed at the end of this article (for more information, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance provides a list of key studies on the benefits of locally owned businesses).

Of course, knowing that locally owned businesses are better for the broader community and environment is not always top of mind when making short-term purchase decisions. In the midst of a busy day, it’s often more convenient to pop into a nearby Starbucks for your caffeine fix than seek out an independent café that’s half an hour away.

Beyond the feeling of goodwill associated with supporting local businesses, are there other reasons to buy locally and how does it benefit the consumer directly? To explore this question, I challenged myself for one month to purchase only from locally owned businesses, stores and restaurants. My intention was to connect with the producers and sellers of the things I consume and to explore how buying locally can directly impact me as a consumer.

Better Experiences for Your Money

One of the perks of buying from independent, local businesses is you get to interact with owners and staff who are more invested in their business. Often, this translates into better customer service and a more engaging experience for the consumer. For example, while having a drink one evening at Pourhouse restaurant in Gastown, the barman gave a highly entertaining missive, along with complimentary tastings, of Scotch whiskey. These kinds of personal touches provide a better experience to the consumer and a higher level of value per dollar spent.

Local businesses often succeed by creating a niche in the marketplace. While it can be difficult for small-scale local businesses to compete against large corporate chains on price, they can succeed by specializing their products and providing high quality service. One day this month, for example, I ate at Shizenya, the only Japanese restaurant in Vancouver to serve organic brown rice sushi. In Vancouver, where sushi restaurants seem as ubiquitous as 7-Eleven’s, Shizenya has carved out a successful niche by focusing on organic and vegetarian-friendly cuisine. The range of customized products sold by independent retailers provide the consumer with greater choice, meaning you have more options for making a purchase that will satisfy your specific tastes.

The wide diversity of independent businesses also helps to shape the unique character of a community. Not only does this make the local area more attractive and engaging for residents, but also more appealing to tourists. I observed this benefit first-hand during a weekend road trip to Seattle, Washington. One evening, we ate dinner at Spinasse in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood, which Seattle magazine has called one of the seven best restaurants that define Seattle dining today. Sitting at the bar, we savoured the traditional Italian cuisine while watching the artistry involved in making handmade pasta in the open kitchen. After dinner, we walked to a local watering hole called Tavern Law, where the upstairs lounge recently made GQ magazine’s list of the 25 best cocktail bars in America. Of note, their bar staff will create a drink off the menu based on any theme you provide – we were thoroughly impressed with their take on “tangerine dream” and “tropical jack fruit.” These types of experiences can help to make your trip more memorable. They can also shape how you see and value your own community’s character after you return home.

Shopping locally is not without its challenges, however. Perhaps the most significant of which is price. The same product will often cost more at a locally-owned business than at a large corporate chain. Bigger retailers can leverage economies of scale to source, distribute, market and sell their goods at a lower price than small, independent stores. This cost advantage is even more pronounced for big online retailers like Amazon. For many routine purchases, the lower prices provided by the big chains will trump all the benefits offered by locally owned stores.

Time constraints pose another challenge to shopping locally. It can take much longer to visit a number of small specialty shops than to do all your shopping at one large retailer. While public markets and other centralized areas can make it more convenient to buy from a range of local retailers, these places are not yet widespread and can have limited hours of operation. After a long day at work, it can be more convenient to shop at a nearby Safeway that’s open late than to travel across town to a public market that closes at six.

The major corporate chains can often provide consumers with products at lower prices and with one-stop convenience. These factors can be the sole arbitrator in many of our purchasing decisions. However, when you consider the quality of customer service, the diversity of specialized products, and the unique experiences provided by locally owned businesses, you may find it’s worth the extra effort and money to buy locally. As with many things in life, the key is to find a balance that works for you.

Benefits of Buying Locally

Economic Benefits

  • Locally owned businesses provide a greater economic benefit to a local economy since more money is spent on local labour, as well as goods and services sourced from local suppliers.
  • Profits accrue to local owners rather than flow to out-of-town corporate headquarters.
  • Since more money is kept within the local economy, more taxes are generated for local and provincial governments to help serve the local region.
  • Local businesses typically employ more people locally than corporate chains (per dollar of revenue) since there are no headquarters staff.

Social Benefits

  • Locally owned businesses often provide better wages and benefits to their employees.
  • Local businesses tend to contribute more to local charities, sports teams, and community events and groups.
  • The diversity of independent businesses helps to shape the unique character and image of a community.
  • This can also boost community pride amongst residents, which can increase civic engagement and build a sense of belonging within the community.

Environment Benefits

  • Locally owned businesses are more likely to use local suppliers, which reduces the environmental impacts associated with shipping goods from distant locations.
  • Local businesses require less land, roads and other infrastructure to generate the equivalent economic output as larger retailers.
  • They also promote a more compact, walkable community with less urban sprawl and congestion.