The economic news has been bleak the last six weeks. Local retailers are reporting slow sales. National chains are hurting. Hotel occupancy has taken a dip. And Black Friday is upon us. The day after Thanksgiving has become one of those make or break days. The media waits breathlessly to report blockbuster sales — or disappointing returns — as if it's the opening weekend of Spider-Man 3. This year it seems like we've got a lot more riding on Black Friday than usual. If it goes poorly and retailers don't end up in the black, will we be worse off come 2009? Or might a surge boost confidence and keep them chugging through a lean January?
Lowcountry Local First (LLF) will be kicking off a Buy Local week on Mon. Dec. 1 with the hopes that it can help divert a slow shopping season, at least within our own community. A September 2008 study conducted in western Michigan — an area that has roughly the same population as the Lowcountry — found that a mere 10 percent shift of money away from chains and into local establishments could give communities a $137 million economic boost and create 1,600 new jobs with $53 million in wages. Them's no small potatoes. Last January, a study found that independent businesses in communities with Buy Local promotions saw a 2 percent uptick in sales during the holiday season, compared to a 0.5 percent increase for those in communities without the local push.
Unfortunately, it might be too late for businesses like Pete Banis Shoes and Mio Stile to benefit from consumer awareness of buying local. While Mio Stile went the global route, closing its bricks-and-mortar shop on King Street while keeping a robust online fashion business, Pete Banis has always relied on the steady foot traffic of locals and tourists. The store celebrated its 50th anniversary last February, but won't make it to year 51. When he was 15, Ernie Banis started working at the store his father established 42 years ago. Today, he runs the shop with his brother Drew. When their lease came up and rent increased, they decided it was time to pack it in. "We wouldn't go anyplace else but downtown King Street," says Ernie, who sees a homogenized future for the peninsula's retail corridor. "My crystal ball view is that it will be a national shopping mall on King Street."
A paper taped to the storefront lists the top 10 reasons to shop at a local establishment, including "to ensure that $2.3 billion brought in annually by our visitors stays in our community," and "to ensure that Charleston is and will continue to be not just another town, but a unique experience with an unparalleled charm and ambiance." But Banis is skeptical of the Buy Local movement having much of an impact, perhaps because he's had that list taped to the door for too many years. "I hate to be so negative, but I just don't see that on the horizon."
On the other hand, Jamee Haley, the executive director of LLF, is witnessing a bright new day for buying local and hopes raising awareness will keep more mom-and-pop shops from closing. In the last few months, her organization's membership has more than doubled and public interest is high.
"Positive things are coming out of this crisis," says Haley. "It's scary, but it's also a time for everyone to stop and reevaluate."
LLF was founded two years ago in Charleston by businessman Matt Bauer and is part of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies (BALLE), a nationwide organization that seeks to create a network of sustainable and self-sufficient economies.
The basic idea is to get communities to realize the value of local businesses, as opposed to multinational companies, which have few ties to the community beyond big tax breaks and generous incentives. As author and BALLE co-founder Michael Shuman puts it in The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition, there are a host of advantages to local ownership, but chief among them is the multiplier factor. "The more times a dollar circulates within a defined geographic area and the faster it circulates without leaving that area, the more income, wealth, and jobs it creates."
One study in the Chicago area found that every $100 spent with a local firm leaves $68 in the local economy versus $43 spent at a chain store. In retail square footage terms, that means for every square foot occupied by a local firm, the local economic impact is $179, versus $105 for a chain store.
Mary Rick, BALLE's program director in San Francisco, believes we're on the verge of a shift toward localization. "We're definitely at a tipping point. The recent activity on Wall Street will have tremendous impacts on Main Street, but it's also an exciting opportunity for change."
Localization has already swept through Charleston's food world. Alan Moore, LLF's program director of agriculture revitalization, fields calls weekly from farmers interested in selling their produce, restaurateurs looking to find local purveyors, and parents and administrators hoping to get fresh food into the schools. Last year, they encouraged local farms to establish Community Supported Agriculture, a program that had nearly 1,000 subscribers getting weekly boxes of locally-grown produce, and in 2009, they'll be lobbying for statewide legislation that requires schools to acquire local food sources.
The momentum is there. High energy costs have fueled the green movement which in turn fuels localization. Haley thinks buying local is ready for its turn in the spotlight, and like being green, consumers can make small, simple choices that can have a tremendous impact.
"There is a true cost to everything," says Haley, "and people are beginning to understand that and like the idea of being sustainable, getting paid a fair wage, keeping the area livable. Localizing your economy really addresses every one of those things."