Americans love having lots of options. We flock to buffets, subscribe to more television channels than we can ever watch, and are overwhelmed by the choices presented at the local coffee shop. We also enjoy a huge array of plays and ways to do our shopping, too. It used to be that we did all of our purchasing in our own downtowns, but today, we can order from shopping-oriented television networks, order from catalogs, shop from our computers in our own living rooms, or even buy Christmas gifts on our phones.
Many say all of these choices are not necessarily good for us. Obesity rates are high and while buffets cannot be solely fingered, they must bear some of the blame and too much television is making our culture more sedentary than ever before. But when it comes to shopping, Americans’ shift to online purchasing is tearing at the very fabric of many local economies. For that reason, many analysts and leaders are urging people – especially those in rural areas – to shop local, not just during the holidays, but all year long.
“Shopping locally is a very simple form of economic development,” explains Courtney Yockey, executive director of the Richland County Development Corporation. “Technology is a great thing and allows you to reach new worlds, but it also can impact your own community negatively. When you click ‘buy now,’ it may look like a good deal, but if you could have gone downtown and made the same purchase, I think it’s a concern.”
University of Illinois Extension Educator Susan Odum has been tracking what she calls “economic leakage” in 16 Illinois counties since 2012. Odum analyzes and then shares with civic groups and others about the flow of dollars in and out of rural areas. For that reason, she is a huge proponent of doing business locally.
“When people go online or out of state to make purchases, it’s very unlikely that that money they spend will ever come back to their own region,” she says. “We talk about what that means for the community when dollars leave. It goes and doesn’t have the opportunity to come back to multiply and broaden the tax base.”
Odum calls the need to encourage others to shop local a “community development issue.” She says that economic research has shown that local spending has a multiplier effect, meaning that the impact of every dollar spent is much more than $1. For example, when someone buys tires at a local service center, that business is responsible for paying property and other taxes, utilities and salaries to employees as well as other expenses. Those employees, in turn, purchase clothing at a local shop. The clothier also pays taxes, and hires others like a local repairman for work on her building. The repairman buys a pickup truck from a local car dealer who also pays his employees. It goes on and on.
If, instead, the original tires are purchased online, the buyer pays with a credit card and the money leaves the area without any sort of re-circulation.
“Studies have shown a multiplier of as much as seven in larger communities, but for many of our areas, it may be more like a multiplier of one or two simply because there are not that many places any more to turn the money over and keep it going,” Odum says. “However, every time you do keep the money local, it supports the community, supports the tax base again and goes back into the community. When the money leaves, that multiplier is zero.”
Making purchases locally ensures that money at least begins to multiply. That is one reason that efforts designed to promote local business are gaining traction. While these “Shop Local” campaigns are most prevalent during the Christmas holiday shopping season, experts say that it is a mindset that needs to be present all year long.
“It’s not just a holiday thing,” Bob Dickey, manager of marketing and economic development for Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative in Paxton, says. “It’s not just for Christmas. It’s for the daily needs: the trip to the hardware store or automotive parts store or for the things for pleasure like pedicures or golf games. We have to get the things we need on a daily basis locally. It’s about helping our own communities.”
any economic development leaders feel that by sharing the “shop local” message during the holidays, when shopping is on the minds of many people, they can instill an attitude that will last throughout the year. They also strive to convince shoppers that even if they are not shopping locally to shop at nearby communities. That is the thinking of “Shop Southern Illinois,” an effort of 16 chambers of commerce reaching from Nashville to Metropolis which encourages holiday shopping in any community in the region.
“If for some reason shoppers are not going to make their holiday purchases in our own community, we want them to do their shopping somewhere else in our area,” explains Ashley Bullock, assistant director of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce. “While I certainly want people to shop here, I’d much rather they buy in Harrisburg or Mt. Vernon instead of St. Louis, Evansville or online.”
The program, which included an extensive media campaign, was recently named the second most innovative chamber program in North America.
“Any time you can get more than a dozen chambers to work together for the good of the region, that’s quite an accomplishment,” Bullock adds.
Yockey says efforts to bring shoppers to any community have to start at home.
“If you are not willing to buy locally yourself, then why would someone from outside your community come in and shop in your town?” he asks. “It’s these local businesses, shops and restaurants that give communities a personality that can and will attract others. We have to support them.”
Odum adds, “If we don’t spend our money in local places, why would others want to come here to spend theirs? When we shop online or in other communities, we’re cutting off our ability to support ourselves.”
She says that another reason to support local business is that the businesses support the community in many ways.
“I’ll often speak to local youth groups or classes about shopping locally and I always ask the students if they’ve ever been involved in any fundraisers for things like a graduation event, a band trip, 4-H or some other group. Without fail, the students say that they’ve done these fundraisers. I ask them then who do they ask for money and they always say, ‘well, we go to the local businesses.’ Then I ask them if they could write letters to Amazon or some other online company asking for their support and they look at me as to say ‘why would we do that, those companies aren’t here.’ I tell them that it is exactly my point. Local businesses are the ones that support you.”
Efforts to promote local shopping are bolstered by the Small Business Saturday campaign begun in 2010 by American Express. The day, observed on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, encourages shoppers to do business with small, locally-owned shops and businesses. It’s estimated that 95 million shoppers visited small businesses during the 2016 day.
“Small business owners and Main Street businesses are the fabric of our daily lives”, Maria Conteras-Sweet, the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, said in a press release about Small Business Saturday. “They have energy and passion for what they do, and when we support small businesses, jobs are created and local communities preserve their unique culture. More than anything, these entrepreneurs need customers. Small Business Saturday provides us an opportunity to honor and celebrate the hardworking men and women that are creating jobs and fueling the economy in their local neighborhoods.”
Bruce Guthrie, executive director of “The District,” an organization of businesses in downtown Quincy, says Small Business Saturday is a great promotion. “It is a great and important Saturday for the small businesses and retailers,” he says. “It is important to support small and local businesses. These business people and their employees are your neighbors and we have to support them on a year-round basis.”
In fact, Guthrie’s organization has expanded its observation of Small Business Saturday to other weekends during the year, calling these quarterly promotions “Shop Local Days.”
Businesses such as Luecke Jewelers in Freeport are big supporters of any program that draws attention to local business. “We’ve been promoting and participating in Small Business Saturday for five years,” Marcia Luecke-Toepfer, co-owner of the three-store family business says. “This is right up our alley of who we are and to get small town shoppers more active and jump start the holiday season, it really works for us. It helps to generate money where a higher percentage of it stays here and that helps everyone in the long run.”
Even organizations without any direct ties to retail are strong supporters of shop local programs. Many rural electric cooperatives offer members the Touchstone Energy Co-op Connection Card as a way of helping members save money on everything from prescriptions to hearing services and meals in restaurants. The cards also help cooperative members connect with area businesses.
“The main reason we started the program was to offer local deals,” explains Nancy McDonald, marketing administrator with the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives. “We wanted to help local businesses get more business. Plus, it is a way for the cooperatives to enhance the bonds they have with local businesses and it is mutually beneficial to our members.”
She says Illinois cooperative members have saved more than $2 million on prescriptions alone since the program began in 2005, not to mention thousands on meals, car repairs, professional services and more.
Dickey agrees. He says the Co-op Connection Card builds relationships.
“It’s a win-win-win,” he explains. “It’s a win for our members who save money, a win for our local businesses and communities because the money stays local, and a win for the cooperative because we brought the other two together.”
Efforts such as the Co-op Connection Card, Small Business Saturday and shop local programs are designed to help consumers make purchasing choices that will not only fill their own needs but support their own regions and communities. As Southern Illinois University Mens’ Basketball Head Coach Barry Hinson says on the Shop Southern Illinois television advertisements, “Don’t cross a river, don’t go online, do your holiday shopping here where it helps the home team.”