What other dealers are doing:
Sometimes, the “Buy Local” message can be so compelling in a community that it starts to take on the trappings of some kind of viral marketing case study.
Just ask Chuck Hellar of Chuckals Office Products in Tacoma, Washington. A meeting on the subject with two Tacoma City Council members set off a chain reaction that led to a recommendation just a few months later to one of Washington’s U.S. Senators from her Chief of Staff that she take up the issue.
Along the way, Hellar and other “Buy Local” supporters met with various county and city government officials and local economic development organizations and began an aggressive campaign to educate Tacoma-area consumers on the importance of supporting hometown businesses.
“An effective ‘Buy Local’ campaign doesn’t have to be expensive,” Hellar contends. “You just need to have the will to make it happen and a few local business owners who feel the same way.”
And even though Hellar says his own program is only getting started, he and his fellow “Buy Local” boosters have already distributed a small mountain of flyers and window decals to local businesses promoting the idea.
Even more encouraging, Hellar’s dealership has seen business from its own local government grow dramatically after beginning to spread the buy local message—business with one agency has practically doubled, he reports happily.
Mon-Valley Office Equipment, Charleroi, Pennsylvania
For Joe Williams at Mon-Valley Office Equipment in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, the light started going off about the importance of encouraging hometown buying about two years ago, when his local county started pushing for a new tax on corporations to help fund a new downtown business development effort.
“We already had a Main Street program, there was the local Chamber of Commerce and our local Town Manager,” says Williams. “All of them were supposed to be encouraging local business growth, but they were each one doing their own thing and there was a lot of wasted, duplicated effort.”
Rather than looking to burden local businesses with more taxes, Williams saw building Buy Local awareness as a far more viable option.
“I got together with several other local business owners and we just decided it was time to change the direction of our community and shift the focus away from more taxes and on to supporting hometown businesses,” he recalls.
Williams and his group held a series of public meetings that generated increasingly enthusiastic support for the effort and also recruited the local Chamber of Commerce as a new “Buy Local” advocate.
His own dealership invested in print advertising and flyers and ran a series of e-mail marketing campaigns touting a buy local message. He also is the process of putting together a special web site, www.ShopCharleroi.com to highlight local merchants.
Is it worth all the effort?
“It’s hard and you have to keep at it,” Williams says candidly. “When we started, we found most people aren’t even aware of the problem—our local Fire Department ran a raffle as a fund-raiser with Wal-Mart gift certificates as the prizes until we talked to them. But it definitely can help you gain new business.”
Some recent examples from Mon-Valley: A local cleaning company with some 30 different locations and a local industrial operation that’s developed into a tidy, $1,600 a month account.
“There’s still a lot of education that’s needed but we don’t really have a choice,” says Williams. “Independents have to stick together and spread the message. Make sure you tell people like your own accountant and attorney why it’s important to buy local,” he urges other dealers. “Businesses like that all have a customer base that’s almost totally local,” he points out. “If we go away because they aren’t supporting us, they may as well close down, too!”
Office Services, Savannah, Georgia
As a member of the Buy Local Savannah organization, David Culverhouse has seen plenty of evidence of the importance of encouraging loyalty to hometown businesses in recent years.
“Practically the first person I talked to after we joined Buy Savannah was someone who had been ordering just about all of their office supplies online,” he recalls. “We sat down, talked about the importance of supporting local businesses and two years later, Culverhouse and his team are still reaping the benefit of a new, $1,500 a month account.
“There’s no question involvement in the Buy Local movement has benefited our dealership,” says Culverhouse, who has at least one of his sales team attending just about every meeting of Savannah’s Buy Local group.
He warns, though, that “Buy Local” doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone. “Buying local doesn’t mean you support someone just because they live in your home town,” he contends. “We like to buy from companies that look and act like us and have the same culture as we do, but the really important thing is to looks at what happens to the money once you cut the check. If it’s heading out of town to some corporate headquarters miles away, that’s not a buy local effort in my book.”
Rosa’s Office Plus, Richmond, Indiana
Bob Rosa’s first real exposure to the importance of buying locally came back several years ago, when a friend of his went out of town to buy a car. While his friend may have been happy with the price he got, for Rosa, president of Rosa’s Office Plus in Richmond, Indiana, it just seemed like the wrong thing to be doing.
Business in Richmond in recent years has followed an all-too familiar pattern in Heartland America. Manufacturing is still the primary source of jobs in town, but it’s down significantly from what it used to be. Unemployment currently runs around 7 percent, compared to less than 5 percent nationally and Wayne County, where Richmond is located, has long been fighting an uphill battle, with an overall decline in its total work force of close to 15 percent over the past ten years.
It’s the kind of place where every dollar spent is precious and as Rosa thought about his friend’s new car and what it meant to him and his neighbors, he started to get angry.
Rosa vented some of the anger in the form of a letter to his local newspaper, pointing out just how important it was to keep money in the community as much as possible. But that was just the beginning. He soon found other local business owners who felt like he did … not many, but enough to make a difference.
What started out as small talk over a couple of beers led to heated discussions and an action plan. The goal: To put together a program that would take the “Buy Local” message out into the community and get people thinking about the real impact of the decisions they made on where to shop.
First stop, Rosa recalled, was at the local Chamber of Commerce. “Our initial group had fire in our bellies and we were out to make a difference,” he remembers. “But there were only five or six of us and we needed some critical mass.”
Rosa told the Chamber director how just a few percentage points shift towards buying local could have a real impact on economic development. He pointed out that money spent with a locally-owned and operated business circulates up to seven times within the community and provides greater wealth and prosperity for all, instead of being siphoned off to a mega-corporation hundreds or thousands of miles away.
It got the Chamber’s attention and what started out as just a few angry local business owners blossomed to become first a Chamber Task Force and then a full-blown Committee effort, complete with is own budget.
First target for that effort was local government. “These were the folks who depended on local tax dollars for their own operations and we felt that they, of all people, should be supporting the businesses that provided those tax dollars,” Rosa explains.
Working in teams of three, the Buy Local committee went to work. “We met with every agency we could think of—local utilities, key officials in the country and city government and the school system—and each one got the same message: ‘You’re spending our tax dollars; use them to support your local community.’”
It was a message that met with an almost instant response. The Wayne County government, which had been buying from a big box operation that didn’t even have a location in Richmond, switched it annual office products purchases—some $50,000—to local suppliers.
The local school system—a $100,000 annual budget spread out over 18 different schools—not only did the same thing, but also put in place a requirement for the system’s business manager to report monthly on how much the schools were spending locally.
As the program gathered momentum, Rosa and his team turned up the marketing heat. They distributed close to 5,000 “Buy Local” decals around town, ran print and radio ads and invested in a high profile billboard campaign to help get the word out.
And Rosa—re-cast in a new image as “Buy Local Bob” featured prominently in the campaign.
“Our Buy Local effort has really made a difference in Richmond,” says Rosa happily. “People see that we can be in charge of our destiny and help the community just by thinking a little more carefully about where they buy. And the great thing is, it doesn’t cost of any us a penny more!”
Buy Local Bob billboard
Original letter to local paper
The Office Center in Alma, Michigan
“Promoting a ‘Buy Local’ message may not automatically win you business, but it will certainly get you a foot in the door,” says Tom Garringer of The Office Center in Alma, Michigan.
The Office Center has been a fixture of the Alma business community for some 30 years but, says Tom, business is tougher than it’s ever been. “We’re certainly working harder than we ever have,” he says ruefully, and even though the nearest bix box is some 20 miles away, there’s still plenty of competition from aggressive direct mail marketers and the local Wal-Mart and K-Mart stores.
“Our biggest challenge,” Tom explains, “is education. It’s a continual effort to show customers that buying from the big box stores doesn’t necessarily mean they’re saving money.”
Tom takes that message to the street with a compelling “Questions to Ask” handout, backed up by an editorial from OfficeDEALER magazine highlighting the importance of buying locally and analysis by the GOPD dealer technology firm that explores big box pricing strategies.
Is it working? “Sure, we’ve lost business to the big boxes and direct mail,” he concedes. “But usually about two-thirds of the accounts we lose will come back because of the way they get treated. You can’t just have a “Buy Local” message and nothing else,” he stresses. “We put a lot of effort into out-servicing our competition and that’s what really keeps us going.”
Some Questions to Ask!
- What average discount can I actually expect?
- Why am I being charged list price or more on some items?
- Why am I charged one price on day and a different price the next?
- Why do the chain stores use their own product numbers and not the