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When you dine out, do you tend to choose independent, locally owned restaurants, or chains?
When you shop, how often do you elect to buy from a community-based retailer, rather than a national big-box store?
Like it or not, the decisions you make are likely to affect the local economy.
According to a study conducted for Local First Milwaukee and Boswell Book Company by Civic Economics in fall 2012, consumer support of local businesses results in greater economic activity.
For example, the study posits that if Milwaukee consumers shifted 10 percent of their shopping and dining from national chains to local businesses, they would create $311 million in new economic activity in the area economy.
The reason? Independent retailers re-spend about three times as much of each sales dollar locally than their chain competitors, resulting in more jobs and community benefits.
This analysis is one in a long line of studies nationwide in which Civic Economics has applied a similar methodology to gain an understanding of the economic impact of independent, locally-owned businesses. In every case, the findings have been unequivocal: independents bring substantial benefits to their local economies when compared to their chain competitors.
Of course, the decision to buy locally raises any number of questions in consumers’ minds. For instance, isn’t it more difficult to seek out locally owned businesses?
Not according to Julie Waterman, owner of Indulgence Chocolatiers, 4525 N. Oakland Ave., in Shorewood, a community which has been particularly welcoming to small local businesses.
"Some local purchasing comes naturally because many local products and services are well known around the community, but others are less obvious," Waterman says. "We think consumers will find that with just a little effort, such as visiting the Local First Milwaukee website, they can find local companies providing most of the products and services they want. Not only will their effort help support our local economy, but by learning about and purchasing from local businesses, they will likely have a better buying experience and feel a closer connection to their community."
Steph Davies of The Waxwing, an artist consignment shop at 4415 N. Oakland Ave., agrees.
"For some, buying locally might seem like a trendy idea, but it goes much further than that," Davies explains. "Taking the time to support locally owned businesses is such a rewarding experience. Since opening the shop and spending the last year surrounded by amazingly well-crafted and unique items created right here in our community. I've realized there's really no end to the items you can find that are locally made/homegrown. "
Another question that often arises regarding local spending is: isn’t it more expensive to buy locally made products?
The answer is: sometimes. Business owners like Daniel Goldin of Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave., is intimately familiar with the trade-offs that come with being a small, locally owned business. Consumers are notorious for using brick and mortar bookstores to check out books that they intend to buy at a discount online. So Goldin focuses his energy on pointing out the advantages people experience when they make the decision to keep their dollars local.
"I try to focus on what I can do to build business, driving folks into the store, and compelling them to make a purchase with selection, service, and a good experience," Goldin explains. "We can't price match, but we have a nice selection of bargain and second hand books, and we have a nice loyalty program and selected discounting of new hardcovers."
Goldin says he doesn’t try to convince consumers that buying locally is a better choice, but he does try to point out ways that they can provide an experience that online shopping doesn’t.
"I do say to them that we'll be here as long as you want us, and that, for example, we're not able to price match our internet competitor when asked. We have customers who get it and are very supportive, and other folks who showroom us," he says.
"We do know that a lot of our customers feel particularly attached to the store, and we've had a number of transplants that have told me that Boswell is one of the reasons they like it in Milwaukee. I've also heard that a lot of visitors find that the bookstore compares favorably with wherever they live, if they even have one at all. We actually get a decent amount of tourists!"
The "value added" in shopping in a locally owned shop is part of the reason why consumers keep coming back to their favorite stores time and time again.
"By taking the time to seek out local businesses to cover all my needs – or as many as possible – I've built some of the most enriching relationships and met some amazingly talented and interested folks." Davies says of her own buying habits. "Plus, everything increases in value when you know the story behind it, when you can visit the land where something came from, when you can shake the hand of its maker."
While national chains and big-box stores rely upon "sameness" and familiarity to retain customers, local, independently owned businesses contribute greatly to Milwaukee's unique character.
"When someone walks into our store, they can be sure they won't find that same experience anywhere else," Waterman explains. "It’s that kind of uniqueness that makes locals want to live here and makes visitors want to come back, and we are proud to be a part of that."
Waterman also points out that every decision a local business makes adds to the health and uniqueness of the community.
"As local consumers help us grow our business, we hire more employees who then put more money into the local economy," she explains.
"We build new projects – such as our kitchen, store and pairing bar coming to Walker's Point this summer – which helps support the local construction and trade industries; and we donate more money back into charitable and civic organizations that help better the quality of life in our community.
"We also use local service providers such as accountants, lawyers, technology consultants and printers. Milwaukee has been extremely supportive of us, and we feel we have an obligation to give our support in return, and that includes keeping as much of our money as possible within the local community. It's a wonderful, healthy cycle, all driven by consumer support for local businesses like ours."
Ultimately, the decision to buy more products locally is a very personal one. But, it’s an easy decision for those who feel strongly that their community is worth supporting.
"When people choose to shop locally, they're supporting themselves and helping the community they live in prosper and grow," says Davies.
"Shopping local means that the money you spend goes right back into your community, possibly even back into your own pocket. Next time you're at a big box store, stop and consider if what you're purchasing can be bought at a locally owned business. Chances are you'll have a more personal and enjoyable experience at that business anyway!"
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.