Shopping local. Maybe you do it, or you try. Or you say you will. Or you don’t, and feel guilty as you wait for the table on your porch to fill with brown Amazon boxes. You hear that shopping at locally-owned businesses will keep more of your money in your own community. But is it true, and if so, how much? When it comes to the Upper Valley, Vital Communities has, in the current vernacular, brought the receipts.
Vital Communties has just released a report of a study conducted by Civic Economics that measured what percentage of revenue of independent stores and restaurants remains in the Upper Valley. For retailers, it’s 55.5% , compared to 13.6% for national or chain stores. For local restaurants, 68.4% is funneled back into the UV economy as opposed to an estimated 30.4% from national restaurant chains. (Click on “report” link, above, for more graphs and info on how the study was conducted. Local businesses essentially opened their books; figures for the nationally-owned were estimated.)
And what of Amazon, with nary a shipping center or other business presence in the UV? Zero dollars, virtually nothing at all, remains or makes it way back home. Incidentally, the study estimates that we who inhabit the four-county (Windsor, Orange, Grafton and Sullivan) service area of Vital Communities ordered on Amazon to the tune of $165 million (!) during the year 2019. That’s a mountain of blenders, books, and baby wipes.
10 independent retailers and 10 local restaurants—twice the minimum number required—chose to participate in the study. They were: Claremont Spice & Dry Goods, Co-op Food Stores, CourierWare, Inc, Dan & Whit’s General Store, Enfield House of Pizza (photo, below), King Arthur Baking Company, Kit ‘N Kaboodle Thrift, Left Bank Books, Long River Gallery, Peyton Place Restaurant at The Historic Mann Tavern, Cloudland Farm, LLC, Piecemeal Pies, Poor Thom’s Tavern, Post Pond Lodge LLC, Prince and the Pauper Restaurant, Revolution (photo below), Taverne on the Square, LLC, Time-Out Americana Grill, Trail Break Taps + Tacos, Valley Floors
Since shopping local has real benefits to the community that are measured in real dollars, as well as that folksy, feel-good, New England small town vibe, why aren’t we doing more of it? Asked about the barriers to shopping local, Erika Hoffman-Kiess, consultant to the Vital Economy initiative, shared some of what they learned:
Anecdotally, Nancy [LaRowe, Food & Farm and Vital Economy Coordinator] and I have heard that it is partially due to the fact that people do not know what products, brands, services are available through local vendors. With Amazon or a big-box national store, they show or carry inventory, and have online platforms that communicate what they have available. Many local small businesses do not have the cash flow or space to carry large inventory, and may not have the online presence to communicate what brands they can access for orders. A part of that dissatisfaction on the side of the consumer is that they do not want to have to call or drive around trying to figure it out.
Not surprisingly, googled articles catalog other problems that consumers see, including price. Large chain and online stores are able to discount their prices, and the buying public loves a bargain. Convenience is another issue. Nothing beats the “click here and wait for delivery” of online shopping; even so, some consumers have said they would shop more locally if they “could get in and out” quickly and easily, which translates in large part to availability of parking. Big box stores in shopping centers have it, and it’s free; mom-and-pop stores on Main Street often don’t, and where it exists, it costs. (Ahem, Town of Hanover . . .)
Less obvious issues include return policies. Bigger companies can afford to be more generous in giving customers longer periods of time to return goods. And consumers have offered yet another aspect that is sometimes overlooked—the shopping experience in a small, local establishment includes an expectation of friendly customer service. If it’s there, the consumer may feel a bond that engenders purchases and continuing customer loyalty. By the same token, if a customer is not received warmly by a knowledgeable sales clerk, it is likely the customer will not purchase and will not return. (I have had both kinds of experiences in the Upper Valley.)
Are these barriers to local shopping insurmountable? Certainly not. There are at least two notes of hope. First, according to LaRowe, in response to a need for curbside pickup due to the pandemic, more local businesses have been developing robust online presences, and this is something that's good in the longer term. (Kudos to the Co-op Food Stores, Dan and Whit’s, and Stern’s Produce, for example, for their quick and well-run online/curbside programs, not to mention places such as the Norwich Bookstore and Still North Books and Bar.) LaRowe added, "Even after the pandemic passes, we don't really want people to have to travel all over the Upper Valley looking for something. We want them to be able to go right to the source. Technology and entrepreneurial efforts will find creative solutions and, with support, will lead us to a much more localized and resilient economy.” My two cents: consumers appreciate local businesses who keep their websites and social media pages up-to-date.
Second, consider this little gem in the report, called “the 10% shift.” Given the spending habits of those who live in the four counties served by Vital Communities, and “[A]ssuming this survey provides a representative sample of area independent retailers, a market shift of just 10% from chains to independents would retain an additional $90 million in the local economy every year.”
If Civic Economics is correct, or even half right, that’s good reason to follow the advice of Claremont Spice & Dry Goods owners Ben Nelson and Chiara Tosi-Nelson, pictured at the top of this post. Their motto? "Buy Local, Stay Spicy.” And keep more of your dollars close to home.
(Photos courtesy of Vital Communities)
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