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Where we shop

Essay by Ed Quillen

Commerce – December 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

MY FIRST JOB at a commercial newspaper, as opposed to a school or underground newspaper, came in the spring of 1972 at the weekly Longmont Scene. By and large, the Scene was an excellent excuse for repealing the First Amendment, since it seldom printed anything worth reading. Its one distinctive policy was that it refused all advertising from outside of Longmont; unlike the Longmont Daily Times-Call, we carried no ads from Boulder, Niwot, Lyons, Berthoud, Lafayette, or anywhere outside Longmont. The owners of the Scene believed in “shop local.”

That was my first exposure to the phrase, but it ties to a rule of small-town business: Do business with the people who do business with you. Or more colloquially, “Dance with them that brung ya’.” For a publication, it makes good commercial and moral sense for us to buy from the people who help us stay in business. After all, we shouldn’t be running advertisements encouraging other people to shop at a given store if we aren’t willing to do so ourselves.

So it’s easy for me to get on board with various “shop local” campaigns that have appeared recently. And even without that business consideration, it’s generally easier to buy something in town than to venture off to the big city. (Hell is probably a lot like Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs, and I feel fairly certain that the merchants of Citadel Mall seldom if ever contribute to any Central Colorado causes or charities.)

Ordering off the Internet from a distant supplier, the modern variant of old-fashioned mail-order, has its hazards, too. If you get a defective part, as I did once with a computer motherboard, it can take weeks to A) convince the dealer that the part was defective, B) learn that you must deal with the manufacturer instead of the dealer, C) convince the manufacturer that the part was defective, D) Obtain an RMA (“Return Merchandise Authorization” ) and a shipping address, E) Pack the returned material properly, and F) Get the replacement part.

Along with the aggravation of all that, and the need to keep track of one’s progress toward getting what was supposed to arrive in the first place, there’s the time spent on the phone — time that could otherwise be devoted to paying work. Add all that up, and the $30 I saved on the motherboard was no savings at all, and was more like $200 in wasted time. If I had bought it from a local shop, the matter would have been settled in a few minutes: “This @%$# motherboard you sold me doesn’t work. The PCI bus is dead.” “Here’s another one.”

So as a practical matter, buying locally makes a lot of sense. Whatever you might save on cash cost with a distant supplier, you may well end up paying in lost time. Besides that, I hate traffic and waiting in lines, and that’s exactly what I face if I go to Denver or the Springs to get something. Shopping is not an entertainment for me — it’s a chore, and the quicker I can get through it, the happier I am.

THUS THE RECENT “shop local” campaigns in this area have been preaching to the choir, as far as I’m concerned. One reason I liked Salida upon our arrival here in 1978 was that it was big enough to provide most things I needed. Kremmling, where we lived before we came here, didn’t even have an auto-parts store then, which meant a 54-mile round-trip to Granby just to get a filter at oil-change time. Nor did it have a bakery or a bookstore.

But not everybody hereabouts sings in the “shop at home” choir, which explains the various campaigns to get area residents to “Think Community, Buy Local,” “Think Local First,” or “Buy Buena Vista.”

The simplest campaign came from Dara MacDonald, Salida’s city planner. She was taking a leadership class from Colorado Mountain College, and the class project was to promote “buy local.” She thought of bumper stickers, raised $3,000 from local government and businesses to get them printed, and thus the encouragement to shop in Chaffee County. Or “Think Community. Buy Local. Chaffee County.”

“That was basically the size of it,” she told me. “It wasn’t co-ordinated with any other effort.”

It stands to reason that local governments will support those efforts, because the towns and county rely so heavily on sales-tax revenues. Retail dollars spent locally should produce better police, streets, fire-protection and other governmental services here.

Also, there never has been a government which didn’t like increased revenue. If you’re going to be spending the money anyway on, say, a set of tires, then buying the tires here puts the tax money under the control of people you elect, rather than the officials elected by voters in Colorado Springs or Denver.

THE CHAFFEE COUNTY OFFICE of Economic Development is headed by Ellen Olson, who’s been co-ordinator since July of 2005. “Economic development” usually means “persuading companies to move here,” but another course is “improve on what we have.”

And part of that might be figuring out what inspires people to shop outside the county — better prices, greater selection, goods unavailable here, etc. — so that local enterprises can better compete. So in January, 2006, the Chaffee economic development office surveyed 2,700 households with 6,900 people.

“The response to the surveys was amazing” she said, with 916 returns, or 33%, when they were expecting about 10% at best. She got some help tallying the results from students at Chaffee County High School in Buena Vista, and discovered that about $26.5 million a year in total retail sales is going outside the county, which means about $1 million in lost sales tax revenue.

The “Consumer Satisfaction Survey” covered everything from shoes to lumber, and indicated that local merchants do well in some categories, like health and personal care, or tools and hardware, while the Front Range Piedmont gets the bulk of our purchases of apparel, home furnishings, and electronics.

Internet and catalog sales generally weren’t a major factor — the full information is at www. Click on “Economic Development” under “Helpful Resources” in the left column, then “here for more information on LOCAL PROJECTS,” and finally the “Consumer Satisfaction Survey results,” which are in a PDF file you can read or download.

Armed with this information, local retailers and entrepreneurs might be able to figure out what merchandise to offer — and how to offer it, since the survey also rated concerns like parking, “hours of operation,” “courtesy and friendliness,” and “overall store image.”

In general for both Salida and Buena Vista, courtesy and image were “good to excellent,” while “product offerings” and “competitive prices” were “just poor to OK.”

Olson cautioned that the survey probably underestimates the amount of money spent out of the county each year, since it topped out at $500 in the categories. For instance, if you were buying lumber for a deck, or for a garage, you’d probably list the $500 maximum, but that’s nowhere near what materials for a garage would cost.

The Salida Business Alliance (to which Colorado Central belongs) is promoting “Think Local First,” starting with this holiday shopping season. It involves a logo with a hanging stoplight, and “10 reasons to shop locally.”

This campaign generally focuses on matters I’ve already mentioned, like more local tax dollars, and points out that local merchants, by and large, depend on repeat business and thus need to treat their customers well.

No argument there, but do these campaigns really work?

We have some evidence from Buena Vista, where “Buy Buena Vista” started in the fall of 2005. The main mover was Joy Duprey, ad manager at the local newspaper, the Chaffee County Times.

As she recalls, she was at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon with the usual complaints about retail dollars leaving town, “and I said something like ‘I’m sick of talking about it. Let’s do it.”

With support from the Chamber and the municipal government, the campaign began in December of 2005. It featured two cartoon characters, Buenie Bob and Buenie Betty (now, at least, we have a quasi-official spelling for Buenie; former Mayor Clint Driscoll suggested Bjüni), and the main thrust was to create “Buy Local Cards.”

These cards — about 2,000 have been issued — will get the user a discount or a reward at more than 100 participating merchants. The campaign is supported with newspaper ads, a website and email, direct mail, and advice to participating merchants on how to support “Buy Buena Vista.”

AN EMAIL SURVEY of card-holders produced some interesting comments. Most were positive, as with “You’re doing a great job with this and we have saved on big-ticket items” and “Continue to encourage local businesses to participate. We feel it is important that the local business economy stay healthy.”

Others were dubious. One said, “I also don’t think a locals’ discount is fair to the tourists, whom a lot of businesses rely on. I wonder how they feel if they find out about locals getting discounts. Would that turn you away as a tourist from visiting this town again?”

That’s a fair question, although when I’m being a tourist, I’ve never really cared about locals getting a discount. When you’re on vacation, you tend to spend money freely, rather than pinch pennies the way you must at home.

Anyway, has this worked in Buenie, Bewny, or Bjüni?

Town sales-tax revenue in January, 2005, was $45,346; it was $53,595 in January 2006 after the “Buy Buena Vista” campaign started. That’s an 18.2% increase in sales when annual inflation was running about 4%.

The numbers at hand are from January through August of this year, and every month except March (down 7.8% from March 2005) shows an increase in sales-tax revenue. The only other month with an increase of less than the inflation rate was July, up only 3.0%.

By most accounts, Buena Vista had a pretty good tourist season last summer, which might explain the 8.1% increase for August. But April and May are not good tourist months hereabouts, and those showed 9.5% and 9.9% increases in sales-tax revenues from retail sales.

So there are some hard numbers which show that Buenie Betty and Buenie Bob have been doing their jobs. This campaign has worked.

These campaigns do raise some bigger questions, though. Colorado Central is a regional magazine, though Salida provides most of our advertising. One concept we had when we started, nearly 13 years ago, was that a regional medium might produce more local services.

FOR INSTANCE, suppose someone repaired guitars in Leadville. Leadville by itself is probably too small to support that enterprise. But all of Central Colorado might provide a sufficient market, and our magazine would offer a way to reach that market. But that’s not exactly “shopping locally” for a Salidan who’s taking a broken guitar up to the Cloud City, and might also get some lunch and buy a few books or magazines while in town.

So I think the concept can be taken a little too far. Even if Salida has plenty of potters, I don’t feel in the least bit guilty patronizing one in Saguache. And is buying at the Salida Wal-Mart the same as “shopping locally” ? Try as I might to avoid the place, there are a lot of necessities that are hard to find anywhere else within an hour’s drive — i.e., getting film developed in an hour.

And presumably the wages Wal-Mart pays to local workers get spent more or less locally. As I have sometimes explained, if the choice is between spending $10 at the Salida Wal-Mart and $10 at a store in Colorado Springs or Pueblo, why not spend it here? In both cases, the profits are exported, but if you spend it here, the local economy gets some wages and some sales tax.

And what of the local shop that says “No, we don’t have it, but we can order it for you?” My first impulse is to say “So can I.” I’m willing to pay something extra to have something on the shelf when I need it, but where’s the benefit to me when it’s not on the shelf?

If I need a new hard disk for a computer, am I better off spending $80 at a local shop or $60 over the Internet? In the short term, the $60 wins. In the long term, I need those local shops because they have expertise I lack for the equipment I rely on to stay in business. So in a sense I’m paying $60 for the hard disk, and $20 for “availability of expertise,” and that seems like a good deal.

So maybe the best slogan would be “Shop Consciously, and keep in mind what you’re really buying.”