Four lessons from buying local

Buying from locally-owned businesses is a good way to support the local economy, community and the environment. Amongst other benefits, 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. But how does buying local benefit the consumer directly? To explore this question, I challenged myself during the month of May to purchase only from locally owned businesses, stores and restaurants. Here are four observations from my experiences this month.

Better Experience 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 lunch one day at Kaisereck Deli in the heart of the Granville Island Public Market, the owner-operator took time to tell me about the nuances of bratwurst sausage. While on another outing, the barman at Pourhouse restaurant in Gastown gave a highly entertaining missive, along with complimentary tastings, of Scotch whiskey. Both these incidences provided an element of entertainment and education to my purchase. Not only do these types of personal touches provide a better experience, they give the consumer a higher level of value and satisfaction per dollar spent.

More Choice

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. These types of customized products provide the consumer with a wider range of choice, meaning you have more options for making a purchase that satisfies your specific preferences and tastes.

Adds to the Community’s Character

The wide diversity of independent businesses also helps to shape the unique character and image of a community. Not only does this make the local area more attractive and engaging for residents, but also more appealing to tourists. This month 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 on the road help to make your trip more memorable, and can even shape how you see and value your own community’s unique character when you return home.

Not Without its Challenges

Buying local 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 price provided by the big chains will trump all the other benefits offered by locally owned stores.

Time constraints pose another challenge to shopping locally. It can take much longer to visit a number of specialty shops, like the local butcher, bakery and produce store, than to do all your shopping at one big-box 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 busy 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 usually provide the consumer with products at a lower price and with one-stop convenience. These factors are often 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 experience 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.

Challenge Five: Keep it local

As consumers, we make choices everyday on how we spend our hard-earned money. These decisions – ranging from what we eat, to how we travel, to what we do for fun – not only shape our daily life, but can also impact the broader economy, community and the environment.

The turn of phrase “vote with your wallet” is often used to connect our individual purchasing decisions with these broader consequences. By buying organic produce or fair trade coffee, for instance, you are making a “vote” via the marketplace that you support the use of more environmentally and socially responsible methods to produce these goods.

Along with thousands of other consumers, your purchasing choices help to send a signal to producers and retailers about the types of goods and services you favour. The louder the signal, the more inclined companies will be to produce, market and sell certain products over others. Like natural selection, the strong will survive.

Not only do we vote with our wallet with respect to what goods we purchase, but also where we purchase those goods. Everyday we make choices between competing businesses, such as whether to buy our morning java at Starbucks, Tim Hortons or an independent coffee shop. In the dog-eat-dog world of the free market, the choice of where to spend your money can be just as important as what to spend it on. It sends a signal through the marketplace that ultimately influences which types of businesses will succeed in your community and which will falter.

Leveraging the power of the pocketbook, consumers are able to endorse the types of businesses that provide the most economic, social and environmental bang for their buck. This is nowhere more evident than in the choice between buying at locally owned businesses versus corporate chains. Some of the major benefits of buying locally are highlighted below (the Institute for Local Self-Reliance provides a comprehensive list of key studies on the benefits of locally owned businesses).

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.

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 ubiquitous Starbucks for a quick caffeine fix than seek out an independent café that’s 20 minutes away.

Beyond the feeling of goodwill associated with supporting local businesses, what other ways does buying locally benefit the consumer?

To explore this question, my challenge for May is to purchase only from locally owned businesses, stores and restaurants. My goal with this challenge is to get better connected with the producers and sellers of the things I consume, and to explore how buying locally can directly impact me as a consumer.