BY JEAN GRECO
When Jane Doe slips into the local hardware store to buy batteries and the local gift shop to buy cocktail napkins, she’s made an innocent but vital contribution to a movement that supports buying local—not just for Christmas, but all year round.
In Iowa, the “buy local” initiative got its impetus from a University of Northern Iowa Professor who observed that while Iowa is an agricultural state, the UNI dining halls featured foods that bypassed local farms in favor of “imports” from other agricultural regions of the U.S.
Sometimes, just raising a question can change the world.
Now, all three state universities buy local to feed their large student populations. It’s an initiative that has caught on in the state’s institutional and consumer markets as consumers demand to know the source of their food.
“People want a story with their food,” according to manager Phil O’Brien of the new Tait’s Natural Foods in Iowa City. “If shoppers know the produce is grown locally, it definitely impacts their buying decisions.”
“In peak season we were teeming with locally grown: tomatoes, kale, garlic, lettuce, onions, squash, apples,” says produce manager Jared Kennedy. “I think everyone just feels better about it. There’s the transportation issue, burning less fossil fuels to get the food here, the idea that the dollars are turning over locally, and a consciousness about unfair labor practices that may be taking place in other countries.”
Mary Carter, organizer of Buy Fresh/Buy Local efforts in Fairfield, says nursing homes and assisted living facilities could turn the freshness factor into a marketing tool to attracting clients. “I think soon we are going to see hospitals and other institutions advertising ‘locally grown’ as a way to compete for patients,” Carter says.
One good idea leads to another.
It didn’t take long for academia to come forth with studies that support the local economic impact of buying produce, meat, eggs, and milk locally, but now the concept has grown to include, well, everything. Economic experts at Iowa State University recently released studies that reflect the impact to hundreds of rural communities of making retail sales locally. A most evident example comes in the Louisa County retail story.
Louisa County grew by over $1 million in 2005 just by putting a little attention on shopping locally. Citing its dubious ranking as dead last in retail sales among Iowa’s 99 counties, the Louisa County Development Group and local banks launched a spend-more-locally campaign. Signs in local stores suggested spending as little as $5 more in local stores, for items such as a sandwich and a drink, batteries, or socks.
Louisa County residents took the campaign to heart, adjusting their buying patterns and reversing the long-standing trend of declining retail sales, according to Jason Hutcheson, Executive Director of Louisa Development Group.
“A strong retail sector is important for many reasons,” explained Deb Mesner, Vice President, MidWestOne Bank, Wapello in a press release issued by the Louisa group. “These businesses provide jobs, generate sales tax income, and are very important in supporting community projects.”
The Louisa County example is driven home by Fairfield store and restaurants owners of days gone by who lament that just another $50 a day would have balanced the financial ledger to allow them to remain open. Corinne Erly of Camelot Toy Shop and Francesco Volponi of Portofino’s Restaurant each noted that the formula was no more complicated than that required to gross another $50 a day: that’s ten Jane Does buying $5 in merchandise or food.
Susan Wellington, Executive Director of the Washington, Iowa Chamber of Commerce, says shop local, buy local is a year-round incentive campaign in Washington. In a recent Chamber newsletter, Wellington acknowledges consumer trends toward buying retail items on the Internet and in catalogs, but notes that those businesses won’t be around when it’s time for the local fundraiser.
“We are all members of clubs and organizations who need the support of local businesses when it’s time to donate to local projects. You aren’t going to ask the Internet business or the catalog company to support your local project,” Wellington says. “When local businesses are asked to support a local fundraiser, it’s going to be a lot easier for them to say yes if local residents are shopping locally to support them.”
Wellington also concedes that it’s frustrating for consumers shopping locally not to be able to purchase what they need on short notice.
“Smaller stores may have to order what you are requesting, and there may be a wait of a day or two, but if you shop for that item all the time, the store is eventually going to stock it,” she said.
To the point of competing with Internet retailers, 21st Century Books in Fairfield, like many specialty shops in rural areas, cannot carry every title, but makes up for it in speedy customer service and volume discounts. The store can get any book in print (and some out of print) and most compact disc music within one or two business days. In a simple phone order to the store, manager Tony Kainauskas is a whiz at finding book titles with only one or two word clues, within seconds.
Kainauskas touts the buy-local concept as one that “helps us feed each other.” He says, “The money I make managing the store, I in turn spend on food and things I need to live.” 21st Century recently expanded into a line of unique gifts that includes jewelry, greeting cards, statuary, and quilting by local artisans.
Tait’s O’Brien says buying local brings commerce full circle. “If our store can support other vendors, then those vendors will eventually support us . . . and eventually it will have the effect of supporting ten more people who can shop here.”
Buying locally now has a way of making things merry all year round.