Keepin’ it local
Encouraging folks to shop at independent businesses is what a new Chico group is all about
Patrons who check their coats at the rear entrance of the Red Tavern restaurant are handed what look like shiny, oversized gift tags bearing the name and location of businesses that belong to a new local-business alliance called Think Local, Chico!
The laminated tags are a cost-effective, grassroots way for TLC member Maria Venturino—general manager and co-owner of the upscale Esplanade eatery—to promote the other members’ businesses, such as Bacio Catering, Greenfeet and Lulu’s Fashion Lounge.
“It’s a way of bringing awareness to our customers,” explained Venturino. “Many of them are already supporting these businesses, but it never hurts to put the word out—especially at this time of year.”
Venturino is one of a number of local businesspeople who belong to the fledgling alliance of local, independent businesses that are banding together to promote the spending of local dollars at locally owned businesses—from restaurants and retail shops to health-care providers and area farms.
Founded two summers ago, TLC is part of a nationwide sustainability movement among citizens working to strengthen their communities by “going local,” as Washington, D.C., economist, attorney and author Michael H. Shuman dubbed it in his groundbreaking 1998 book Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age. Across the country, hundreds of independent business alliances (IBAs)—such as TLC—have formed to combat the influx of big-box retailers and giant online stores, which by their very existence threaten to put small businesses out of business.
The logic is that shopping locally helps keep the local economy healthier; offers better, more personalized service; and, in many cases, is gentler on the environment.
While the group’s primary focus is economic, and not “green,” as 33-year-old founder/coordinator Jessica Rios points out, TLC embraces the fact that, generally speaking, shopping locally is better for the environment.
During a recent afternoon at her downtown store, Heather Lyon, TLC member and owner of independent bookstore Lyon Books and Learning Center, leaned forward over her office desk while intently discussing the reasons for her participation with the group.
Shopping locally, she said, causes more money to be present in the community.
“One hundred dollars spent locally gives the recipient the opportunity to circulate that money here in the community at another local business who can then recirculate that money locally,” the articulate Lyon pointed out. “If you spend it on Amazon, there’s no sales tax [benefit to the community], and the money gets whisked away to another place, serving as a drain on our local economy.”
The end result is impressive: Lyon notes that of every $100 spent at a local business, $68 remains in the community. Conversely, only $43 of every $100 spent at a chain firm stays in the community. Big chain stores, she added, also tend to create fewer jobs overall, as opposed to the perception held by some that they bring more jobs to a community.
“Each big-box retailer displaces five locally owned businesses,” said Lyon, adding that not only are those jobs lost, but work is also lost for the local lawyers, consultants and other professional service folks who those local firms rely upon.
Lyon first became aware of IBAs through her membership in the NCIBA (Northern California Independent Booksellers Association), but she credits Shuman, who spoke recently at Chico State’s This Way to Sustainability conference, for inspiring her to become part of one.
TLC fills a niche in the community that hasn’t been served by other local business groups, such as the Downtown Chico Business Association and the Chico Chamber of Commerce, Lyon pointed out. Unlike the DCBA, the organization serves businesses beyond the downtown area. While the Chamber of Commerce serves all of Chico, Lyon emphasized that it “actually seeks development from out-of-town to come here, knowing full well that it would put local businesses out of business.”
IBAs, Lyon stresses, are important because local businesses don’t have the support structures that the chain outfits rely upon. TLC is in the process of joining BALLE (The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies). Lyon says the thriving national organization, and others like it, helps provide local groups with vital parent-company benefits, such as lobbying power and access to economic-impact studies.
Independently, TLC has proposed an online directory of participating businesses, a local gift card redeemable at its businesses, and is working on outreach to the public to spread the word that buying local is a very good and necessary thing, especially in these difficult economic times. Of course, the idea is to benefit the businesses, but many of those benefits go directly to the patrons.
Consumers benefit by having a wider range of choices from “a marketplace of small businesses” specifically chosen to meet the needs and interests of local citizens, versus chain stores whose more homogeneous decisions are based on a national sales plan.
There’s also a social aspect of doing regular business in local places where the customers know the proprietor and many of the clientele. TLC doesn’t want to see the loss of culturally vital businesses in Chico, but the outcome will rely on the community’s support.
Meanwhile, TLC members are walking the talk as much as possible in their own practices.
For her part, as a restaurateur, Venturino has purchased her kitchen appliances and hardware exclusively from Collier Hardware for the past 11 years. She also buys as much as possible from local producers of bread, wine, cheese, nuts and produce, and notes the better taste and nutrition of the food items, and their longer shelf life.
While Lyon’s business forces her to purchase books from publishers on the East Coast, she does what she can to buy locally, including providing a place for local authors to sell their books.
“I always try to find a way to do more of my spending locally,” said Lyon, who recently stopped buying cookies for her store’s book-signing events from Safeway in favor of purchasing them from a local woman who bakes them. “In a year, my business spends six to seven times what my family-spending is, so to get businesses spending locally makes a big impact.”