Local... shmocal? June 2, 2016 10:14

Recently, our friends at Friars’ Bakehouse raised a ruckus with a Facebook post about shopping locally. From their standpoint - and I will try not to put words in their mouths - they would like to see more local residents shopping and eating downtown, especially as certain large offices have left the area and more eateries have opened. It is essential for the people who live and work in Bangor to eat or shop at small businesses if they are to survive. As the Friars rightly pointed out, “Shop Local” is not just a fun slogan.

Writing this sort of commentary is tricky. You want to make your point, but you don’t want to come off as whiny - all “Woe is me” and whatnot. It’s a difficult road to tread and easy to wander off one way or the other. With that in mind, let’s delve into the idea of shopping local. What does that really mean?

What is local?

Local is difficult to define. Generally speaking, most consumer goods sold in stores are produced some distance from where they are sold. Even at a small store like CSF, only a small percentage of our products are completely locally produced - wood beer boxes, a few malts, and a very limited supply of hops among our regular lineup. And some of our products will never be locally produced - wine kits, malts, and hops all rely on varying degrees of terroir to define their differences. That said, you can also buy locally made items at national chain stores. And that does not even begin to touch upon the local chain stores or independently owned franchises. (What? Not all chains are evil, corporate, scum-suckers? Yep, though they often present many of the same problems as the Wal-Marts of the world - low wages, the focus on low price over quality, etc.) The worst is the big box store or chain restaurant that presents itself as local, but still ships most of its revenue back to a corporate office somewhere else.

[WARNING: Side political rant! And that is ultimately the problem. “Store clerk” used to be a respectable job. At some point we were sold a bill of goods: low prices as a path to prosperity. A few corporate fat cats (do people still say that?) get rich while good paying jobs disappear for the people who actually work. And then we all need “Everyday Low Prices!” to buy stuff that we don’t need, so we can be happy working for peanuts. Rabble rabble huzzah!]

Ultimately, the average American only travels a few miles from home for work, entertainment, shopping, etc. In some way, everything we buy is local - except online shopping. Avoid that for sure unless you are shopping at www.centralstreetfarmhouse.com. Numerous studies have shown that more than half of every dollar spent at a locally-owned establishment (the exact numbers vary on this count) recirculates through the local economy, but only 20 cents or so sticks around from the big box stores. This goes for every kind of product or service - from buying at a hardware store or specialty shop, to eating at a restaurant or buying from a local farmer, and even where you do your banking or get your tires rotated. I hope I have made the simple idea of “shop local” more complicated, though it doesn’t need to be. Keep it simple. Be aware that there is more to all of this, but don’t dwell on it. Ideally, buy goods produced within your own region. Officially, Congress defined local food as produced within 400 miles of where it is sold, or within the same state. This is a pretty solid definition, though it won’t work for all consumer goods or even food (coffee, bananas, avocados, etc.). For non-food items, buy as much as you can from a store in your normal travel area. There is probably more there than you think.

But most importantly, remember that local is NOT a promotion put together by major credit card companies.

That is all great. Shop local. Sounds like it means major life changes and alterations in your normal shopping and purchasing habits. Maybe at first. Here are some general suggestions to help organize and maybe make it easier!

  1. Rethink purchasing habits and strategies. Start here. Just be self-analytical for a minute. Plan ahead a bit. This is probably the hardest part, but once you start making small changes - some folks recommend starting with spending $50 a month at a local business instead of a big box or chain establishment - it gets easier and becomes habit. You develop relationships with these shops’ employees and before you know it, you don’t want to go anywhere else.
  1. Buy the seemingly expensive item ONCE instead of the same item over and over. It doesn’t save you any money to spend $40 twice a year for boots compared to spending $300 one time. Over the life of those boots, you will save big bucks in the long run despite paying more upfront. Plus, these boots probably come with a guarantee and can be repaired! Also, look to fix things instead of just replacing them. There is a common misconception that electronics or machines produced these days can’t be fixed. While they do tend to be made with cheaper parts and might break sooner, parts are available to fix many common household appliances or tools - you just need to buy from a dealer or check with the manufacturer. I have personally taken to fixing everything from the small engines and yard care tools I use frequently as a homeowner, to appliances like my microwave and vacuum. And if nothing else, buy used. Shopping this way is better for your wallet and for the environment.
  1. Remember that your low prices have high costs - it means low-paying jobs, no benefits, no pensions, and generally no service involved before, during, or after the sale. Small businesses are not always perfect, but we tend to go further than the big box stores. This is not meant to disparage employees at these large stores, most of whom want to provide good service. This is targeted at the retail culture created by low wages, minimal staffing, cost-cutting, and corporate indifference.
  1. On the flip side, remember that the supposed higher prices at small stores comes with other benefits. You are just paying the actual price of an item, not an artificially low price. Further, the “high” prices are often closer to the big box or online price than you might expect - remember that shipping is not always free, and neither is the time it takes to answer your questions. Higher prices generally come with better products, too. For example, buying power equipment or tools from dealers instead of the big box. I can tell you with absolute certainty that this makes a difference!
  1. Think ahead! Need an item? Make time to check out a small store in your area instead of running to Lowe’s or Wal-Mart. PLAN your purchases, especially for hobbies or luxuries. Did we already mention this? Oh, and we all appreciate when you pay with cash or check.
  1. And finally, you don’t have to be perfect. Not everything will be available from a local source - and that is okay!

Every dollar you spend winds up in someone’s community - it might as well be your own. Small businesses mean higher wages, innovation, and more local tax revenues as they do not have the leverage to threaten a community into bad deals (like TIFs). As politicians like to say, small businesses are the backbone of our economy. But they will only continue to be if people spend their money accordingly. Entrepreneurship and innovation are not self-funding and are not generated on their own. It is not enough to voice support, you must also vote with your actions and your wallets.