Think outside the big box, buy local

The transition between Thanksgiving and Black Friday can be depressing. A day spent at home with family appreciating one’s good fortune is quickly followed by a day at the mall, jostling among strangers to spend a sizeable portion of one’s fortune on stuff that’ll be outdated or forgotten before next Thanksgiving. Such a precipitous drop from our higher values to our baser instincts can cause a kind of moral vertigo.

It reminds me of Sundays at the suburban church I attended as a kid, how the congregants went from earnestly wishing each other peace to cutting one another off in the parking lot within the span of five minutes.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Gratitude and goodwill can coexist with consumerism when we choose to spend our money at the small, locally owned businesses in our communities.

Six years ago, I helped to establish the non-profit organization that runs the Portland Buy Local campaign. The initiative, which now has 400 participating members, has educated thousands of consumers about the benefits of supporting locally owned, independent (read: non-franchise) businesses. Like-minded groups have since sprouted in numerous Maine cities and towns.

The Buy Local movement has its limits. It cannot sustain enterprises that can’t compete on the strength of their products, service and prices – nor should it. I do not support efforts to limit chains and franchises through zoning or other ordinances.

But the campaign has helped level the playing field upon which Mom and Pop vie for your dollar against the soulless outposts of corporations with massive marketing budgets. Member businesses in Portland report that the effort has brought new customers through their doors. While the increased business hasn’t been enough to reverse the downturn caused by the recession, it has certainly helped many enterprises weather the financial storm.

Supporting local indies makes economic common sense. More of your money stays in your community, sustaining and generating jobs for your neighbors while bolstering the tax base. A study completed last year by the Maine Center for Economic Policy found that for every $100 spent at a locally owned, independent business, $58 is recirculated in the local economy, compared to just $33 of every $100 spent at a typical chain.

Indie businesses are also an integral part of what gives Maine places their unique character, which draws tourists and their dollars. And our willingness to support these businesses is crucial to keeping the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation alive, especially among the young. Lots of people dream of owning and operating their own restaurant. No one dreams of managing a McDonald’s.

This is where the gratitude and goodwill come into play. Local entrepreneurs and their workers tend to appreciate your business in ways that employees of chains and their shareholders do not or cannot. If I buy a TV at Mega-Mart, the associate running the register has no reason to be glad I’m there, and the owners of Mega-Mart have no idea I’m inside their big box. The size and standardized culture of chains and franchises make the shopping experience less personal, less human.

Contrast that with the scene at Uncle Joe’s TV & Appliance, a hypothetical indie shop. Chances are Joe’s there. He and his crew are clearly happy you showed up and glad to share their expertise with you. Joe’s employees are more aware than their Mega-Mart counterparts that your money is paying their wage, maybe even making a raise more likely.

Granted, there are managers and workers at chains and franchises who have real pride in their company and their role in its success, just as there are jerks who own and work at the indies. And anybody can have a bad day – particularly during the stressful holiday season.

But my experience as someone who’s worked and shopped at both types of establishments has convinced me that my business is much more appreciated at the local independents. I know my dollar makes more of a difference in the lives of the owners and workers and does more to improve the quality of life in my one-of-a-kind city. Knowing that gives me an added sense of satisfaction and fellowship that the chains can never offer.

So buy local this holiday season. You’ll be thankful you did.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.