Buying local isn't a radical idea

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2012 - 5:44 PM

Keeping dollars in community doesn't mean boycotting Wal-Mart.

My name is Neal. And I'm not a shopaholic.

I buy many of my clothes at thrift shops. Others in the family cruise the MOA.

I have enough fun making the mortgage and tuition payments.

Regardless, it's hard to avoid holiday-shopping hype, from Black Friday to Small Business Saturday, which was launched a few years ago by huge American Express.

I'm also a throwback who patronizes the neighborhood hardware store and shoe store for needed items before I'll drive to Target or Home Depot.

There's something to this local-is-beautiful shopping trend that emphasizes the economic value of keeping dollars in the community by shopping at independently owned merchants.

Brian Ocel, a veteran manager at Nokomis Shoe Shop in Minneapolis and Crystal, estimates that enrolling in AmEx's Small Business Saturday program alone helps drive sales an extra 15 or 20 percent on that all-important shopping day in the just-completed weekend.

"It's our biggest weekend of the year," Ocel said. "And having the Small Business Saturday support makes it bigger. We're also signed up with 3/50 Project."

That project was started in 2009 by Cinda Baxter, a Twin Cities retail consultant who advocates for locally owned merchants.

And then there's the Metropolitan Independent Business Association of the Twin Cities (www.buylocaltwincities.com), made up of a few hundred independently owned businesses, arts organizations and nonprofits -- from appliance peddler Warners' Stellian to Ginkgo Coffeehouse and Electric Fetus Music and Gifts. They like to point out that they are neighbors, local employers and, unlike Amazon.com, pay sales taxes on every purchase.

Bill Veeneman, a veteran business development executive at the former Dayton Hudson Corp. and U.S. Bancorp, says the research is pretty conclusive that more money stays in the neighborhood when you buy from an independent business than from Wal-Mart.

"There is a segment of the population that will shop small and independent businesses and even pay a premium," said Veeneman, who's also an entrepreneur who runs www.gobuylocal.com. His company provides marketing strategy and support for about 350 small businesses in several communities.

According to Veeneman and other shop-local proponents, small business activity best sustains local economies because about two-thirds of every sales dollar stays local, versus national chains at 42 percent and Internet-only companies at closer to zero. Keeping the money local, the theory goes, allows it to "work" in the community, as it recycles through other businesses, creating new jobs and wealth, as well as a portion that supports local charities and schools.

Dave Brennan, a retail business professor at the University of St. Thomas, maintains that supporting a neighborhood entrepreneur is the best way to keep neighborhood commercial nodes strong, property values up and community causes supported.

However, even Veeneman says the issue is not "black and white." Big is not necessarily bad.

Target employs thousands locally and reinvests a portion of pretax profits in schools and charities. Allina, a big health care complex, cemented the small-business renaissance on E. Lake Street by consolidating its headquarters in the abandoned Sears Roebuck store several years ago.

Few of us are buy-local purists.

Veeneman said he observed a recent focus group in which several of the 10 consumers thought "shop local" meant buying in the United States and a couple others took it to mean just avoiding Wal-Mart.

"A few really understand the economic multiplier of 65 cents of the dollar staying in the local community and they see better neighborhoods and property values," Veeneman said. Think Grand Avenue in St. Paul.

Several years ago, Stacy Mitchell, a product of Grand Avenue's Macalester College, wrote "Big-Box Swindle" for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. She compared Wal-Mart and its ilk to wealth extractors from local communities. I thought the thesis was a bit overstated.

To be sure, I've spent time in chain stores. But generally speaking, if I can't find it at Welna Hardware, the local thrift shop, Nokomis Shoe or the downtown Target store -- to say nothing of Chicago Lake Liquors -- I'm not sure I really need it.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 nstanthony@startribune.com

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