Welcome to the holiday issue. For many economic development professionals, especially those working with entrepreneurs and local expansion of products and services, this time of year provides for an absolute no-nonsense metric: Sales over the course of a few short weeks. Consumers celebrate Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday, Web Wednesday, Trade Thursdays, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and conclude with Sluggish Sunday. Whew!!! That’s a lot of money injected into the retail economy. But while Hallmark cards may love these catchy brands and holiday events, the effort to encourage consumers to buy local should, at best, not be only a one day event or even a week- or a month-long event. Buy local should last all year round: ideally it should be woven into the cultural fabric of a community to expand employment, nurture a sense of civic pride and provide for a more relaxed, fun, and rewarding gift-buying experience. Gift exchange is as old as humanity and we have many opportunities and ways to celebrate it.
Now I know that shoppers, especially in rural communities lacking diverse manufacturing capacity, cannot choose to buy only locally-produced items. The reasons are many and in today’s economy it just isn’t possible. Therefore, because local businesses need to survive every month of the year, we should change the “shop local” mantra to something that is more broad, i.e., Think Local First. Think Local First strategies begin with conducting an asset mapping exercise so that people know what is in one’s community. In my travels around Washington I have discovered that many people actually have no idea what products and services they have in their own community, especially high school aged youth. That needs to be fixed. The Port of Bellingham produced this great clever poster entitled 100 things made in Whatcom. Can you name 100 things that are made in your county? How about 50? Asset mapping is an important ingredient for the success of local businesses, communities and residents. It helps on every front, from retaining students, recruiting talent and growing entrepreneurs to simply creating a better informed populace who can make decision about their communities. This ultimately makes seasonal shopping choices a no-brainer because it becomes part of the community’s culture.
We have some excellent best practices and resources on shopping local here in Washington. Sustainable Connections has some excellent think local first programs and provides great resources on their web site; South Sound has had a successful local coupon book campaign for the last five years and Greater Grays Harbor Inc. has their “Shop the Harbor First” program, featuring a “Harbor Card” that offers discounts year-round from participating businesses. The town of Okanogan does a “First Friday” campaign and it is a shop local campaign for deals on the first Friday of every month. The Methow Valley also has a “Methow Made” program that is a year round campaign promoting buying local products 365 days a year. Finally, Tacoma has a “Go Local Tacoma” program. There are certainly many more initiatives in communities around the state, including several long lasting food coops in their third and even fourth decade, multiple food hubs around the state to assist local food producers and build upon local farmers markets and an untold number of informal financial groups assisting young entrepreneurs.
In addition to those successful practices we also have in Whatcom County one of the most recognized Think Local First organizations in the U.S with the Business Alliance for Local living Economy (BALLE). They have developed and contributed an incredible array of resources to help you get connected and started and share best practices. Chapters are springing up around the state, including a new one in Spokane.
To learn more about building effective Think Local First campaigns, check out this guide offered by the American Independent Business Alliance. Bilingual, down to earth, and free.
Think Local First campaigns are not pretending to singlehandedly save a community. No one strategy ever can. But such campaigns are grounded in local relationships and data and develop collaborative responses that build capacities able to navigate the challenges we face. And that is something to celebrate every season of the year.