What if a single conversation with one of your small local business clients could spark activity that would lead to an increase in their YOY sales of more than 7%, as opposed to only 4% if you don’t have the conversation? What if this chat could triple the amount of spending that stays in their town, reduce pollution in their community, improve their neighbors’ health, and strengthen democracy?

What if the brass ring of content dev, link opportunities, consumer sentiment and realtime local inventory is just waiting for you to grab it, on a ride we just haven’t taken yet, in a setting we’re just not talking about?

Let’s travel a different road today, one that parallels our industry’s typical conversation about citations, reviews, markup, and Google My Business. As a 15-year sailor on the Local SEO ship, I love all this stuff, but, like you, I’m experiencing a merging of online goals with offline realities, a heightened awareness of how in-store is where local business successes are born and bred, beforethey become mirrored on the web.

At Moz, our SaaS tools serve businesses of every kind: Digital, bricks-and-mortar, SABs, enterprises, mid-market agencies, big brands, and bootstrappers. But today, I’m going to go as small and as local as possible, speaking directly to independently-owned local businesses and their marketers about the buy local/shop local/go local movement and what I’ve learned about its potential to deliver meaningful and far-reaching successes. Frankly, I think you’ll be as amazed as I’ve been.

At the very least, I hope reading this article will inspire you to have a conversation with your local business clients about what this growing phenomenon could do for them and for their communities. Successful clients, after all, are the very best kind to have.

What is the Buy Local movement all about?

What’s the big idea?

You’re familiar with the concept of there being power in numbers. A single independent business lacks the resources and clout to determine the local decisions and policies that affect it. Should Walmart or Target be invited to set up shop in town? Should the crumbling building on Main St. be renovated or demolished? Which safety and cultural services should be supported with funding? The family running the small grocery store has little say, but if they join together with the folks running the bakery, the community credit union, the animal shelter, and the bookstore … then they begin to have a stronger voice.

Who does this?

Buy Local programs formalize the process of independently-owned businesses joining together to educate their communities about the considerable benefits to nearly everyone of living in a thriving local economy. These efforts can be initiated by merchants, Chambers of Commerce, grassroots citizen groups, or others. They can be assisted and supported by non-profit organizations like the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

What are the goals?

Through signage, educational events, media promotions, and other forms of marketing, most Buy Local campaigns share some or all of these goals:

  • Increase local wealth that recirculates within the community
  • Preserve local character
  • Build community
  • Create good jobs
  • Have a say in policy-making
  • Decrease environmental impacts
  • Support entrepreneurship
  • Improve diversity/variety
  • Compete with big businesses

Do Buy Local campaigns actually work?

Yes – research indicates that, if managed correctly, these programs yield a variety of benefits to both merchants and residents. Consider these findings:

1) Healthy YOY sales advantages

ILSR conducted a national survey of independent businesses to gauge YOY sales patterns. 2016 respondents reported a good increase in sales across the board, but with a significant difference which AMIBA sums up:

“Businesses in communities with a sustained grassroots “buy independent/buy local” campaign reported a strong 7.4% sales increase, nearly doubling the 4.2% gain for those in areas without such an alliance.”

2) Keeping spending local

The analysts at Civic Economics conducted surveys of 10 cities to gauge the local financial impacts of independents vs. chain retailers, yielding a series of graphics like this one:

While statistics vary from community to community, the overall pattern is one of significantly greater local recirculation of wealth in the independent vs. chain environment. These patterns can be put to good use by Buy Local campaigns with the goal of increasing community-sustaining wealth.

3) Keeping communities employed and safe

Few communities can safely afford the loss of jobs and tax revenue documented in a second Civic Economics study which details the impacts of Americans’ Amazon habit, state by state and across the nation:

While the recent supreme court ruling allowing states to tax e-commerce models could improve some of these dire numbers, towns and cities with Buy Local alliances can speak plainly: Lack of tax revenue that leads to lack of funding for emergency services like fire departments is simply unsafe and unsustainable. A study done a few years back found that ⅔ of volunteer firefighters in the US report that their departments are underfunded with 86% of these heroic workers having to dip into their own pockets to buy supplies to keep their stations going. As I jot these statistics down, there is a runaway 10,000 acre wildfire burning a couple of hours north of me…

Meanwhile, Inc.com is pointing out,

“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since the end of the Great Recession, small businesses have created 62 percent of all net new private-sector jobs. Among those jobs, 66 percent were created by existing businesses, while 34 percent were generated through new establishments (adjusted for establishment closings and job losses)”.

When communities have Go Local-style business alliances, they are capitalizing on the ability to create jobs, increase sales, and build up tax revenue that could make a serious difference not just to local unemployment rates, but to local safety.

4) Shaping policy

In terms of empowering communities to shape policy, there are many anecdotes to choose from, but one of the most celebrated surrounds a landmark study conducted by the Austin Independent Business Alliance which documented community impacts of spending at the local book and music stores vs. a proposed Borders. Their findings were compelling enough to convince the city not to give a $2.1 million subsidy to the now-defunct corporation.

5) Improving the local environment

A single statistic here is incredibly eye opening. According to the US Department of Transportation, shopping-related driving per household more than tripled between 1969-2009.

All you have to do is picture to yourself the centralized location of mainstreet businesses vs. big boxes on the outskirts of town to imagine how city planning has contributed to this stunning rise in time spent on the road. When residents can walk or bike to make daily purchases, the positive environmental impacts are obvious.

6) Improving residents’ health and well-being

A recent Cigna survey of 20,000 Americans found that nearly half of them always or sometimes feel lonely, lacking in significant face-to-face interactions with others. Why does this matter? Because the American Psychological Association finds that you have a 50% less chance of dying prematurelyif you have quality social interactions.

There’s a reason author Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series about life in a small town in North Carolina has been a string of NY Times Best Sellers; readers and reviewers continuously state that they yearn to live someplace like this fictitious community with the slogan “Mitford takes care of its own”. In the novels, the lives of residents, independent merchants, and “outsiders” interweave, in good times and bad, creating a support network many Americans envy.

This societal setup must be a winner, as well as a bestseller, because the Cambridge Journal of Regions published a paper in which they propose that the concentration of small businesses in a given community can be equated with levels of public health.

Beyond the theory that eating fresh and local is good for you, it turns out that knowing your farmer, your banker, your grocer could help you live longer.

7) Realizing big-picture goals

Speaking of memorable stories, this video from ILSR does a good job of detailing one view of the ultimate impacts independent business alliances can have on shaping community futures: