Buying Local: Benefits, Methods, and Tips
There’s no doubt that our purchasing decisions are the backbone of the local economy, and whether we buy local or shop at a larger chain often helps determine whether smaller businesses survive and then thrive. Currently, as larger businesses threaten to erode small business communities and many small and local businesses are pinching pennies to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, the practice of buying local is more important than ever.
The threat of the COVID-19 Pandemic restricts the way we live our lives, our budgets, and what we can or can’t purchase. It’s very tempting to give in to any conveniences that present themselves, such as purchasing our goods, foods, and necessities from the easiest, largest sellers. However, constantly taking this option can be potentially devastating to our local communities, as small and local businesses struggle to survive with reduced sales and no foot traffic. As a result, our towns and communities can suffer in the long term for it.
Local businesses, including restaurants, farms, distilleries, wineries, breweries, bakeries, retailers, and trade services, still need your business at this time. Most of them are trying their best to reach you and make their services available to you throughout the pandemic, using shipping and delivery services, curbside pickups, and other flexible innovations.
Here is a guide to get you to start thinking about how your buying habits can help to support your local economy.
What Do We Mean by Local?
When we talk about local shopping, it’s important to distinguish between shopping locally and making your purchases from local businesses. If you’re shopping locally, then you may be going to local branches of a wider chain, as opposed to purchasing online.
However, shopping local normally indicates the decision to primarily patronize businesses that are locally owned and operated.
In this case, you’re making your choice to buy from locally-owned businesses, as opposed to larger retailers or food chains. While both of these in-person options help to support local jobs, buying from local businesses does more for your local economy than buying from larger chains, boosting it while also building relationships.
Local vs Chain:
Chain stores are often owned by larger corporations and operated through an external headquarters. This headquarters commands most of the higher-paying jobs while the local branch employs relatively few individuals to operate the store itself. Many individuals resort to chain stores and restaurants due to their familiarity, low prices, and convenience. This reliance on the convenience of larger companies has become a problem as consumers start to feel the pushback of instability from the pandemic.
The current supply situation has caused shock among consumers as they enter stores to find empty shelves. The availability of certain necessities varies from region to region. Nonetheless, shelves carrying meat, produce, and cleaning supplies may remain empty for days. This is likely the result of purchasing at a higher rate than normal, as opposed to a complete lack of supply throughout the chain. Many areas are actively working to adjust their supply chains to the new demands.
Local farmers and many local markets, however, still have a strong supply of produce and animal products. They plan this supply to sell during farmers’ markets, and in the absence of these markets, they have fresh foods ready for purchase.
Key Differences Between Chain and Local Retailers
When it comes to developing a strong local economy, chain stores are not as beneficial as independent and local businesses.
About 45 percent of every dollar of revenue spent at a locally-owned business stays in the local community. Additionally, about 9 percent benefits the economy elsewhere in the state. On the other hand, only 14 percent of the revenue spent in a chain store will remain in the local community, and this tends to mostly be the payroll of the employees who work at that chain. The remainder is absorbed by external suppliers or the parent corporation.
While chain stores try to excite a neighborhood with the promise of job creation, they often displace almost the same number of jobs that they would create. At the same time, since the management of these chains is most often removed from the local branch, chain stores offer very limited upward mobility for the vast majority of employees. Instead, they export profits to a corporate headquarters, where they also employ the majority of their services, such as accountants, designers, marketers, central customer service, and others.
Additionally, chain stores normally cost more taxpayer dollars to support than is redistributed to the community through wages. For the most part, these chain retailers do not significantly increase retail sales in a way that strengthens the local economy with increased local tax revenue. Instead, they tend to shift a percentage of sales away from local businesses.
To maintain consistency, each store in a chain tends to be cloned in design, and they generally purchase very few local goods and services. Different chain stores will all have the same or similar products, geared toward what sells nationally, as opposed to local interests. When shopping locally, on the other hand, many of your options will be locally created or produced. This means you can find unique, regionally sourced, and customizable goods.
What Can You Buy Local?
Local Independent Retail
Local retail is often the biggest seller of locally made, produced or designed goods. They can be a good way to discover local artisans, local brands, and find fresh food, whether you want to eat tonight or store for the long haul.
Even when they aren’t selling locally made goods, these retailers add to the local business community, and sell goods and items that are desired by the local community. Local retailers add an unique and more personal aspect to the retail landscape.
For example, locally-based grocery and food stores will have fresher produce and proteins due to the decreased shipping distance. Furthermore, these stores will cater to their food selections to local tastes, meaning that the foods and spices that you’re likely to find will help you to cook with regional flavor.
Local Produce or Foods
Local farms are looking for opportunities to sell you their healthy produce while farmers’ markets are disbanded during the pandemic. Farms often rely on and dedicate a certain percentage of their supply to sell at farmers’ markets. That supply hasn’t gone anywhere, it is still good food that is available to help you cook your best while under quarantine and stay-at-home orders. You can get anything from fresh eggs to grass fed beef.
The most important thing is to find out how to reach out to local farms to get it. Many of them are working hard to find ways of doing curbside pickups, deliveries to co-ops, and increasing the availability of their food shares and community supported agriculture programs.
Local Liquors, Beers, or Wines
Local and independent liquor stores and wine sellers are more likely to stock local beer, wine, and liquor. Additionally, your local breweries, wineries, and distilleries can use this business and support, particularly in areas where they have had to shut down taprooms, tasting rooms, associated pubs, and bars.
Without the revenue from distributing to bars during the pandemic, you might lose out on your favorite microbrews, which are so often intrinsic to the culture and identity of an area. Purchase local liquors to continue your support as times get tough.
Ordered Meals from Local Restaurants
Local restaurants and food service industries are hit very hard throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes dining restaurants, bars, and bakeries. Nonetheless, since food service is considered an essential business, many of them are operating with limited services and offerings and relying on you to choose them for delivery.
Other Local Business Partnerships
Many local businesses make partnerships with other local producers to mutually sell products. These partnerships have become increasingly important during the pandemic, since they allow some businesses which could not otherwise operate right now, to continue selling their goods.
For example, in addition to food supplies, many farms carry other homesteading products, such as soup, jams, and pickles, or locally made hygiene items, such as soaps, lotions, and other bath items.
What Are the Drawbacks?
Shopping local is beneficial to individuals and the community as a whole. However, it does have a few drawbacks.
One of the major drawbacks is supply. There are some things that local businesses won’t be able to get ahold of, as supply chains adapt to new demands spurred on by events.
Additionally, price can be a concern for many, and it might be more difficult to shop locally during periods of economic uncertainty.
This means that many of us won’t be able to purchase absolutely everything we need from locally owned businesses. Nonetheless, it’s important to support what you care about and do the best you can.
Why Should You Buy Local?
When you shop local, you are not just supporting local businesses but also the local individuals who run and work at these businesses. This means your purchasing allows for more local jobs now and in the future and a stronger local community.
Local food helps to support the needs of local families in difficult or unstable times. The more you buy local, the better you can help to create a firmer, healthier, and closer-knit local community.
Now more than ever, local and small businesses can use your support, as communities work together to weather the health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Your patronage during a tough time not only offers financial support for members of your community who suddenly find themselves in precarious positions, but it also makes a statement of solidarity that small and local businesses will remember helped them continue when it might have looked like they would need to close shop.
At a time like this, buying local is more than strengthening your local economy. It is potentially saving your local community and helping to preserve those things that are special and unique about it.
There is a link between the creation of small businesses in a region and the health of the area’s population. These local businesses enhance the problem-solving capabilities of addressing public health concerns, and communities with a greater level of small businesses tend to have greater levels of population health.
Buying local food may also help you to cook better than you have before. Fresh and local crops are picked at their peak and don’t have far to travel. This means better flavor and less nutrient loss than crops that have been shipped a long way.
Local foods will often use fewer chemicals, they might utilize all-natural or less harmful pesticides to preserve their land, and their foods are less likely to be contaminated. Additionally, local food production, such as local jerkies, honeys, jams, and cured meats, tend to have fewer harmful preservatives than their big box store alternatives. Whether it’s fresh or prepared, you can know where these local foods come from, what’s in them, as well as who made them.
Larger enterprises create monocultures in more ways than one. The consistent agriculture of singular crops not only seeps nutrients from the soil without offering an adequate replacement, but it also requires too much water from fragile water tables, and lays waste to local ecosystems.
Smaller farms preserve genetic diversity in agriculture and produce. Not only is this better for the environment to allow for biodiversity, but it also allows the farmers to utilize longer growing seasons, as different strains of produce will thrive during the different zones of each season. This biological diversity is also good for the consumer, as it allows for better, more interesting flavors, varieties, and cuts of meat.
Local farms also benefit the land and its wildlife by allowing biodiversity among the surrounding ecosystems. In order to preserve their soil for years of use, the majority of smaller farms practice responsible land development and preserve open spaces. Local farms also have lower water and carbon footprints than those of big agriculture. For example, local businesses tend to use less packaging than those businesses that need to ship far and wide, meaning less waste, fewer plastics, and decreased carbon emissions from shipping.
Aside from the ecological effects of small local farms, shopping locally for other goods is also a big help to the environment. Local stores often carry local goods, which require less shipping distance and less transport, thus lowering their carbon footprint which creates less traffic.
When you shop locally, you are supporting your neighbors and individuals who you can get to know personally. You might even get to know the local shop owners’ and workers’ dreams and ambitions, as you help them get by in times of crisis. Paying for local products ultimately means that the same money you would be spending anyway also helps to nourish your neighbors.
You can help to support local shops by telling local friends where you’re buying from and what they offer. This helps you to network and become a trusted resource among your friends, while also making connections with local businesses that will appreciate your business and referrals.
During social distancing, you can help to signal boost the offerings of local restaurants, shops, or farms to your friends and family by tagging the shops on your social media and making sure to indicate where you are. Many non-essential businesses that have had to close their stores have moved to eCommerce. You can purchase their products or gift cards using their online stores. Sharing a link to local stores will let others in your community know how to find them.
Economic prosperity among smaller businesses often translates to a better quality of life among the broader community. For some regions, this is because buying local is an investment in businesses that pay local taxes, thus allowing the development of better public services and prosperity among the greater population. Local businesses are also more likely to work with and help enhance their local partners, meaning that helping one business can help support others.
Buying local helps to boost your local economy and community, particularly among states that are driven by manufacturing or agriculture. Purchasing locally means helping to preserve and stimulate local jobs, and to help boost the local economy overall. Having a strong community of local businesses can even lead to tax benefits for your region.
For example, in most places, shopping local helps to ensure that sales tax money, which you would be spending regardless, returns to your region. This tax base will be important for the redevelopment of commerce in the aftermath of pandemic shut-downs.
Additionally, the money you spend locally is more likely to circulate your community. Local businesses often source from other local businesses. For example, local restaurants will often source from local produce and farms, and local shops will often carry products from local artisans.
Furthermore, when we talk about local businesses hiring local workers we don’t just mean the people in the front of the store. This also includes laborers, cooks, and craftsmen who help bring produce to the table and create the products that you crave. Additionally, it means that the local businesses hire local services in a wider network of economic exchange. For example, businesses need architects and contractors, repair people, accountants, and insurance brokers, website designers and product photographers, as well as marketing and advertising professionals.
The more unique local businesses that can’t be found anywhere else, the more likely your local community is to bring in neighbors, visitors, and guests. A strong local community can be an attraction that causes others to want to visit and enjoy the unique goods and services that your community has to offer. This also means greater economic prosperity for your local businesses and your community.
David vs Goliath
David versus Goliath is a Biblical analogy that has come to characterize the struggle between smaller businesses and larger superstores, such as Walmart and Amazon. The smaller businesses struggle to compete with the price point and convenience of larger stores. However, while they can’t compete with prices, these smaller stores are very valuable to our local communities.
Larger stores may be convenient, but they usually aren’t unique or interesting. Small stores can offer us a level of custom care, unique offerings, and freshness that we can’t get from the big chains.
However, as much as we may enjoy having and the idea of having local businesses in our neighborhoods and downtowns, it’s also our job to nurture them if we want to keep them around. This is because small, independent, and local businesses face stiff competition from larger chains. That means that if you want local businesses in your area, as most people do, it’s important to make sure that you purchase what you can from them.
It’s also important to consider that you might not be a local to all of the small businesses that you may personally care about supporting. Smaller and independent artists, musicians, writers, content creators, and other more widely dispersed industries are also smaller businesses that offer unique, creative, entertaining, and community-building services and resources. These small industries may not be in your town but they are also suffering throughout the pandemic shut downs and could use the support of individuals who care about their continued survival.
Small Businesses Are Good for Our Local Communities
Local businesses have a vested interest in helping to be part of a thriving local community. The more the community thrives, the better their business does. Many local business owners have a lot to lose if their business goes under, as they often invest their personal savings or capital, their economic survival, and the vast majority of their time into making sure that the business thrives.
The owners of local or small businesses generally have such a vested interest in local upkeep that the owner will frequently serve on local boards, donate to or host charitable events, and support causes that are close to home. This also means that local businesses are more likely to give back to the community than chain stores, while also encouraging strong community activities, such as festivals, fairs, and discount weeks.
They Help to Give Our Communities a Sense of Character
Citizens want to be around a community that exhibits a sense of local character and culture.
Most people don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere. They like the idea of having a little town within walking distance, bustling with local businesses and necessities. This is not only much more convenient than having to drive 20 minutes to get anywhere, but it also adds a strong support structure to where you live, that can help you to feel less isolated.
This 2015 survey found that over half of Americans said that they preferred a neighborhood where they wouldn’t have to use their cars very often. Furthermore, about 40% mentioned wanting local shopping and entertainment in the area as one of their top priorities when choosing a location.
Local businesses are grateful and need your business since they are less likely to have other branches far and wide that they can rely upon. Additionally, many will have fewer customers than larger chains, so that they can allocate more time to serving your needs.
Many owners and employees alike involved in a local business will cultivate extreme expertise in their niche to operate, compete, and help customers. This means that they will likely be able to give you very specific advice and help you with more particular concerns and troubleshooting than larger stores, particularly when it comes to regional lifestyles.
Local businesses that want to remain competitive are incentivized to offer excellent customer service. Many local businesses inspire loyalty and pride from their employees. To smaller businesses, employees aren’t just numbers but known and often cherished individuals who choose to work in a locally-operated position. Local businesses often try to give their employees whatever resources they can afford to, and this translates to an employee’s attitude and willingness to help customers.
Local businesses are furthermore more likely to aid in local events and nurture a local community. Local businesses are more likely than chains to donate to community causes and participate in events such as fairs and festivals. Additionally, since owners live within the community, their charitable contributions tend to be more likely to help your community firsthand.
Additionally, local businesses tend to help support local culture, since they mutually benefit from cultural festivals, arts festivals, and trade shows. Local coffee shops are more likely than chain coffee shops to use their walls as gallery space for local artists to sell their art. Local restaurants are more likely to host local musicians. Independent bookstores support readings from local writers and authors. And locally owned spaces mutually benefit from community events that allow individuals to express their culture.
What to Look for in a Local Product
If we decide to shop locally, we don’t want to be duped. The community aspect of local businesses naturally makes us want to trust them. This can be a difficult distinction to field during the pandemic, since most businesses, big and small, are primarily operating remotely. Everyone is relying on delivery, curbside pickup, or shipping, so it’s important to check which goods and services are truly local and which are chains.
There are a few ways that we could be mistaken when we try to shop local, however. In one case, we might buy from a chain, thinking that it’s local on account of clever branding. In other cases, we might find that the local retailer we’re supporting doesn’t actually carry local goods.
For the most part, supporting a local retailer is still effectively supporting a local business, even if every product that you purchase isn’t locally made or produced.
Nonetheless, if you’re confused about what is and isn’t produced within your community, you’re best off asking the locals. These retailers usually know a lot about their products, since they are responsible for their own buying and sourcing. That means that if you’re looking for something that’s legitimately local, and you’re not sure how to check for yourself, most of the time all you need to do is ask.
Is It Really Local?
Begin shopping locally by doing a little research.
First, it’s useful to know about the local businesses in your area. During the pandemic, you will most likely be ordering in or doing curbside pickup. That makes it easier to search through a business’s website to find out whether it’s local and what that means for its products. If they source locally, this is likely to be something that they advertise with pride.
In most cases, if something is local, the branding will try to let you know. Smaller businesses rely on regional recognition and the interest of consumers to buy local. Since you will be visiting a lot of websites during the COVID-19 pandemic to check up on what businesses are operating and what they’re offering, this is also a good chance to check their website to see where they’re operating.
There will be times that local brands use global supply chains to produce their goods, the same as larger brands might. While this does mean that the products haven’t been locally handcrafted, it still helps to support a local business to purchase these products.
How to Tell
- Check the website of the restaurant. If they don’t say outright where they’re headquartered, check their locations to make sure that they’re operating locally.
- Look for labels that indicate where something is made or produced.
- Check the website of farms to make sure of their location and agricultural processes.
- Keep an eye out for items that may be repackaged into locally branded packaging as opposed to locally made. These will normally be large batch items that diverge in craftsmanship from what that artisan normally offers.
Is It Really More Expensive to Buy Local?
In many cases, buying local can indeed be more expensive than buying from larger chains. Local stores might not have enough profit margin on their goods to lower their pricing to the market minimums set by various online retailers and marketplaces. Higher pricing might also indicate higher quality products, less mass production, and handcrafting.
If you’re concerned about the pricing of local goods, consider setting aside a certain part of your budget for buying local or for supporting small businesses throughout the pandemic. If you budget for it, you will be less likely to hesitate over the price.
Nonetheless, eating locally may often not be much more expensive than purchasing high-quality goods from a large chain grocery store or restaurant.
Why Are Local Goods More Expensive?
When you buy from a smaller batch it will be more expensive. The more that can be manufactured of a product at once, the lower its cost will be. Since local producers have fewer resources, or often eschew mass production, they cannot mass produce in a way that would keep their prices as low as their much larger competitors.
Additionally, local retailers don’t have the financial resources to price match much larger retailers. This means that they cannot offer the kind of steep discounts that drive consumers to larger retailers.
The additional cost of buying local may only be a few dollars per purchase or a small percentage of the item. However, this can add up to a significantly larger sum if you’re not expecting it.
Keep in mind, though, that throughout the pandemic, smaller businesses want to help you to help them. Many local businesses are bundling their products, offering discounts for carry-out services, and offering the ability to get bulk discounts to make it worth the cost.
Many farms also offer you the opportunity to purchase in bulk to support larger families and help you stock your pantry and fridge for a lot of home cooking. For example, CSAs often give great value for the amount of food that you get from local farms. And, if a CSA is too much for your household to consume in a month, you can easily split and share the food with a friend or neighbor.
How to Source Local Products
Many of us get stuck in our daily routines and visit the same few stores over and over again. However, if you want to support local businesses, you may have to do some searching to find them.
Local businesses don’t often have the loudest voices around, since they don’t have the big budgets for marketing and advertising that larger chains have. All the same, many of them have a platform where they communicate with customers and would love to see you there.
Some cities and local publications will list local businesses on their website to help these businesses gain exposure for residents and tourists. You might also check into any local discovery websites put together by business groups in your region. This information is also frequently available through or on the website of a local Chamber of Commerce.
Communication is Important for Choosing Local Products
Communication is the key to purchasing local products. It’s important to know what’s available, how and when you’re going to get your products, particularly if they’re perishable foods, and what exactly you’re getting. This communication will help both you and the local business get to know and trust each other with your consumer needs.
Buying seasonal produce is an important part of buying local. Most local farms can only truly grow what’s in season at the time. Seasonal variety allows us to enjoy the special nuances of our local crops, and the particular flavors of our local soil. If you’re buying something that’s out of season, it’s most likely being shipped from another part of the country or often another country altogether.
Eating seasonally means getting food that has the most nutritional value, the best flavor, and is the easiest and best for the environment and your local farmers. If you are purchasing products directly from a local farmer, it will most likely be seasonal produce. Otherwise, keep an eye on the products that you see in the store and check the labels to see where that produce is grown.
While the farmers’ markets are closed, it’s encouraged that you reach out to local farmers and businesses that you care about to see how they’re operating. This kind of support will be invaluable to letting these farms know that their community cares about keeping them open. In addition to positive reinforcement, though, it helps you get in touch with them to see what goods and services they are providing throughout the pandemic.
In most cases, digital communication will be the best way to do this, as many companies have pared down other forms of access. Most local businesses and farms will be responsive to their websites, as well as their social media, using Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter to give news, accessibility opportunities, as well as their offerings and available stock.
Purchasing and preparing supply and harvest is an early process that has to do with registering demand before the growing year. Small farms and businesses will often do this through marketing interest, preorders, past demand numbers, often derived from retail or farmers’ market sales, and subscription orders, such as CSAs.
Local farmers have already bought seeds and supplies for their planting season, and they need you to continue your demand despite everything seeming a little more out of reach these days. In terms of produce and protein, this means they will have the same produce that they had planned for the season, before the pandemic altered consumer access and demand.
Other small businesses, however, require more consistent communication, particularly throughout the pandemic, to register demand, keep local workers employed, and stay in business while social distancing. This might include local retailers who might be taking mail orders, and especially local restaurants that might need to use curbside pickup or delivery services.
All the same, it’s important to start communicating with local businesses earlier rather than later. With fewer resources and more need for planning, you will likely need to be patient with local businesses to get orders ready. This might mean prolonged lead and shipping times, as well as increased notice for deliveries.
How Local Stores Are Surviving the Pandemic
Local businesses still want to be there for you, despite many cities remaining under stay-at-home orders or lockdowns. This means that these businesses have had to become creative in how they get you their goods and services. Most businesses have commonly resorted to no-crowd pickups and deliveries. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, we have witnessed some inventive ways that local businesses are reaching out to their communities.
- Some retailers and other businesses are offering gift baskets and deliverable care packages, with necessities and comfort items.
- Local coffee shops still want to help you indulge your coffee habit with delivery or mailed subscription services of your favorite coffee beans. Some have also been known to pack their care packages with more than coffee, including entertainment, such as printed puzzles, poetry, or books.
- Similarly, liquor stores have been known to deliver bundles for mixing your favorite cocktails at home, with everything you need for the full bar cocktail experience while sheltering in place.
- Restaurants and food trucks are circulating through quarantined neighborhoods to remotely offer you the refined taste of date night that you might be missing.
- Businesses of all kinds are welcoming gift card sales as a form of immediate financial support, knowing that gift card holders will make their transactions in the future when business operations are less restricted.
- Many independent artists have begun streaming services, offering online classes and tutorials. This also includes live fitness, meditation, and yoga classes.
- Independent musicians, artists, and other performers are making use of websites such as Patreon, which allow creators to offer exclusive rewards in return for small monthly subscription support, for them to continue creating their art and music.
- Educators and tutors haven’t given up on their students but have instead moved to online platforms for teaching.
The One Month Challenge: Buy Everything Locally
When we’re so used to online purchasing and buying from big box stores, learning to buy local has to be a deliberate choice. If you’re trying to get into this mindset, you can try a one-month challenge where you buy whatever you need from local businesses or local retailers for the month. This will help to break the ice when it comes to communicating with the unique communities that local and small businesses offer.
To begin the challenge, try making a list of the items that you need to purchase for the month. Include groceries, produce, and other necessities. Also, be sure to include days when you intend to eat out or grab a coffee. Then in a column next to the items that you need to purchase, start brainstorming a list of local retailers, local farms, and local businesses where you might find them. Once you get started, you will see how easy it can be to purchase what you need locally.
Nonetheless, every region is handling the COVID-19 pandemic differently. In some areas, a challenge, such as this simply isn’t feasible until the supply chains stabilize, social distancing helps to flatten the curve, and businesses can open their doors again. All the same, right now we can help our communities by purchasing whatever we can from local businesses, and a challenge such as this can be a good way to help us kickstart our local economies once the restrictions lift.
Ultimately, buying local has numerous quality of life benefits that make it worth the slightly increased cost of products. Local businesses offer our neighborhoods a unique character, they give us more choice, they employ our neighbors, and put money and support back into our communities.