Strictly Business: The 'in' thing to do: 'Buy local'

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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OK, I confess. I'm addicted to browsing (and occasionally buying) in downtown Vancouver's boutiques during my daily lunch-hour walks.

On my budget, looking is half the fun. But whenever I buy something, I can do it with glib satisfaction instead of guilt and self-loathing. That's because I'm supporting a local business, which helps our local economy.

Right?

Jeff Milchen thinks so. A co-founder and co-director of the American Independent Business Alliance, Milchen promotes movements that encourage shopping at local businesses. "Buy local" campaigns improve the bottom line for those shops. They also keep more money recirculating through the community.

How do we know that? Take a look at a 2012 study published by the Institute for Local Self Reliance. The report, based on sales data from nearly 2,800 independent businesses, found 48 percent of the revenue spent in local businesses stays in the community. If you shop at a chain retailer, the study concluded, only 13.6 percent of your money sticks around.

There, there. I'm not suggesting you give up on your Target store shopping sprees. Just tone it down a bit. Try to buy a few more items from local stores and send less local money back to Target's headquarters in Minneapolis or other out-of-state locales.

Milchen was in town last Monday to cheerlead members of the "Buy Vancouver" campaign. The movement is small but growing. If we embrace its message, we'll give a boost to our county, which loses an estimated 40 percent in sales tax revenue to sales-tax-free Oregon. If we want strong businesses, we need to spend more time buying from local, independent merchants here at home.

Promoting the concept

But to get our attention, local merchants need to promote the "buy local" concept. The business alliance study found that communities with grassroots "buy local and independent" campaigns averaged an 8.6 percent increase in sales in 2012 over the previous year, more than double the increase reported by independents in areas that did not have a campaign.I guess most of us already have a vague notion that our "buy local" habit is valuable. But we didn't know the difference it makes to merchants, their employees, charities, and our economy in general.

People don't have to say it was the "buy local" message that prompted them to buy from a local store for the campaign to be successful, Milchen said.

"People almost never think that way," he said. "They don't say 'I'm taking this action because someone told me to do it.' The human brain just doesn't work that way." But such a campaign is successful, he believes, if people somehow begin to think buying from independents is the "in thing to do."

As for me, I'm just thrilled to have an important (and somewhat noble) reason to attach to my noon-time habit of searching for kitschy, vintage and retro treasures at downtown antique stores like 2nd Bloom, The Cat's Pajamas and Divine Consign.

Cami Joner is a Columbian business reporter. 360-735-4532, http://twitter.com/camijoner; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or cami.joner@columbian.com.