Four blocks from my house on the north side of Chicago is an independent toy store that has bailed me out with a last-minute birthday gift more than a few times. The knowledgeable proprietors peddle geodes to German-engineered wind-up trains, bug-collection kits to theatrical costumes. Perhaps more important than their inventory, they've kept alive that elusive remnant of the retail experience—service. They gift wrap for free year-round.
"Indie shopping" is a conscientious effort to patronize independents, or locally owned businesses, over chain stores when it's possible to do so. "Buy Local" campaigns draw the support of like-minded citizens and community groups, particularly as businesses and consumers continue their slow crawl from recession. The pro-indie argument usually centers on community benefits, from social interaction to tax revenues. There's an impact on the wallet as well.
Chain patrons typically cite prices and product variety when they opt for big-box stores. Internet shoppers do so for convenience. Plus, many individuals who might make the choice to shop locally find themselves forced to hit the chains, as downtowns and neighborhood shopping clusters have shrunk dramatically over the past two generations. That's true of both small towns and bigger cities.
But comparison shopping between independent businesses and chains is about "overall value, not just price," says Jeff Milchen, co-founder and outreach director at the American Independent Business Alliance. "There are other factors, such as service, selection, durability. You have to look at the lifespan of products before determining whether they are more expensive than at chain stores" where higher sales volume tends to lower price tags.
Milchen recalls his time in the landscape industry. He learned that the higher-end makes and models, and accompanying service, of lawnmowers he bought through a locally owned seller topped what he assumed to be a more appealing cost option at a home-improvement chain.
The energy costs typically associated with shopping at big shopping complexes or standalone chains must also be accounted for. "We've been increasing our driving significantly over the past several decades, and it's due almost entirely to shopping," says Milchen. "Plus, time is money."
Advocates say the decision to buy locally should be a lifestyle choice that reflects a commitment to the community. In one measure of community impact, consultancy Civic Economics, in 2004, conducted the Andersonville Study of Retail Economics, a fact-finding mission commissioned by Chicago's Andersonville Chamber of Commerce and the Andersonville Development Corp.
The study examined the economic impact of 10 local businesses in the Andersonville commercial district against that of chain businesses in the area. The study's findings: Of every $100 spent at local businesses, $68 remains in the Chicago economy, while of every $100 spent at a chain, $43 remains in the Chicago economy. For every square foot occupied by a local firm, the local economic impact is $179. For every square foot occupied by a chain firm, local economic impact is $105.
Although he was not referencing the Andersonville study specifically, Milchen, of the Independent Business Alliance, says his association's efforts are sometimes undermined by statistics that show a too-favorable and unrealistic gap in the community revenue benefits of independent business over national chains. Milchen prefers to look at it this way: Shopping at locally owned establishments can leverage community funds times three, on average. For example, by supporting a local clothing boutique, a consumer is also supporting a local attorney, tax preparer, and printer. Local businesses tend to source small manufacturing and banking needs closer to home as well.
Certainly, there are other retail realities. The existence of any business, chain or not, is often preferred over an abandoned storefront, and will better serve communities void of key supplies for everyday existence. While I happily patronize my local toy store, the reality is that big-box retailers that include a grocery section may just be the saviors for the vast "food deserts" across other parts of my home city, Chicago. There, zero grocery options, especially fresh food, exist for blocks on end.
Still, the risk of losing more independent businesses or even slowing their growth is only reenergizing the small-business community. Local and national campaigns that join efforts to raise awareness can boost results for indies.
A 2011 Independent Business Survey was conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and dozens of national and local business organizations. Respondents who participated in "Buy Local" campaigns reported an average gain in revenue of 5.6 percent, compared with a 2.1 percent revenue increase for those not involved in these campaigns. The survey gathered data from 2,768 independent, locally owned businesses during an eight-day period in January. It covered all 50 states and included a range of business types.
National campaigns are also gaining some traction. Nov. 26, 2011, the Saturday immediately after Thanksgiving and Black Friday, is designated as the second-annual Small Business Saturday holiday shopping promotion. An effort called Independent We Stand joined with American Express to create the national program in 2010 in response to small business owners' most pressing need: more demand for their products and services. Last year's inaugural program drove millions of dollars to Main Street merchants, the campaign says.
"Locally owned businesses reinvest in the local economy at a 60 percent higher rate than chains and Internet retailers, so Small Business Saturday shoppers will be revitalizing their economies while finding great deals at their favorite local merchants," says Bill Brunelle, project manager of Independent We Stand, in a news release.
For Milchen and other advocates, the fight is as much about preserving quality human interaction and a sense of community as it is about the bottom line.
For more on the Independent We Stand holiday promotion and other resources for the indie shopping movement, see below:
Independent We Stand: independentwestand.org
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Nation: uschambersmallbusinessnation.com
Civic Economics' Indie City Index 2011, a ranking of American Metropolitan Areas by the proportion of retail activity captured by independents: civiceconomics.com
American Independent Business Alliance: amiba.net
Institute for Local Self-Reliance: ilsr.org
Business Alliance for Local Living Economies: livingeconomies.org