Thursday, July 9, 2009

Local or Chain?

I was catching up on some Facebook posts today and found an interesting article which a bookseller friend of mine from Lititz, PA linked to. It discusses how major corporations are increasingly using the "local" label in their marketing efforts.

Thinking about this I was reminded of the frequent discussions over the future of South Padre Island and what we need to do in order to attract repeat visitors. There are plans for a retail and marina complex along the bay and I hope the developers keep in mind the attraction of independent businesses instead of just opting for the familiar purveyors of bling which are prevalent in so many tourist locations. Just because a shop is located on the Island does not mean shopping there is the same as supporting a locally-owned business yet the trend toward independence is driving marketing decisions.
Across the country, scores of shopping malls, chambers of commerce and economic development agencies are also appropriating the phrase "buy local" to urge consumers to patronize nearby malls and big-box stores. Flanked by storefronts bearing brand names like Anthropologie and The Cheesecake Factory, officials from the Economic Development Corporation of Fresno County explained that choosing to "buy local" helps the region's economy. For anyone confused by this display, the campaign and its media partners, including Comcast and the McClatchy-owned Fresno Bee, followed the press conference with more than $250,000 worth of radio, TV and print ads that spelled it out: "Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores—you name it."
The movement in consumer preference is toward a more personal shopping experience. The plethora of books promoting the use of locally grown foods as part of a healthy lifestyle is just one example.
"Think of the millions of dollars these big companies spend on research and focus groups. They wouldn't be doing this on a hunch," observed Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a trade group which represents some 1,700 independent bookstores and last year launched IndieBound, an initiative that helps locally owned businesses communicate their independence and community roots.
Signs that consumer preferences are trending local abound. Locally grown food has soared in popularity. The U.S. is now home to 4,385 active farmers markets, one out of every three of which was started since 2000. Food co-ops and neighborhood greengrocers are on the rise. Driving is down, while data from several metropolitan regions show that houses located within walking distance of small neighborhood stores have held value better than those isolated in the suburbs where the nearest gallon of milk is a five-mile drive to Target.

One way corporations can be "local" is to stock a token amount of locally grown produce, as Walmart has done in some of its supercenters. The chain's local food offerings are usually limited to a few of the main commodity crops of that particular state—peaches in Georgia or potatoes in Maine—and sit amid a sea of industrial food and other goods shipped from the far side of the planet. Yet, this modest gesture has won Walmart glowing coverage in numerous daily newspapers, few of which have asked the salient question: Does Walmart, which now captures more than one of every five dollars Americans spend on groceries, create more and better opportunities for local farmers than the grocers it replaces?

Walmart, like other chains, has learned that, with consumers increasingly motivated to support companies they perceive to be acting responsibly, tossing around the word "local" is a far less expensive way to convey civic virtue than the alternatives. "Local is one of the lower-hanging fruits in terms of sustainability," explains Barry. "It's easier for companies to do than to improve how their employees are treated or adopt a specific sustainability practice around their carbon footprint, for example."

Rather than making direct claims using the word "local," some companies are pushing marketing messages that work by association. One example that caught Dan Cullen's eye was a CVS television commercial that begins in a Main Street bookshop, following the owner around as she tends to her customers. The bookshop then transforms into a CVS. The bookshop owner is now the customer. The feel is still very much Main Street. "Suddenly, the kind of unique, enjoyable, grassroots bookstore experience morphs into a CVS experience," said Cullen. "There's a Potemkin facade that a lot of chains are trying to put up because consumers now want something other than a cookie-cutter experience." (emphasis mine)

As the town continues to grow, I hope we look as this trend and stay ahead of the curve instead of thinking we need to emulate many of the resort communities which, in my opinion begin to look quite similar -- each having a Barnes & Noble, Starbuck's Coffee, Bubba Gump's Shrimp or Pappadeaux next to a Coach or Louis Vuitton leather store, across from the Saks Fifth Avenue which is within walking distance of the jewelry store of the moment. Any frequent cruise traveler knows what these shopping extravaganza areas look like. Without the daily guide telling you what port you have arrived in it can be difficult to distinguish one from another. While this is popular with many travelers, I would suggest that the type of visitor who comes to South Padre Island will prefer a more eclectic and diverse selection of activities and shopping venues.

We have the unique opportunity to become a model independent, locally-owned, business community simply because we are physically unable to expand beyond an area that is accessible by bicycle, walking, electric vehicle or easily used public transportation. No matter what happens South Padre Island is by its very nature a "local community".
Can corporations succeed in co-opting "local"—or at least so muddling the term that it no longer has meaning? The Hartman Group's Barry thinks that's possible. "For many consumers, these things are not being called into question much. They say, 'Hey, it's my local Walmart or my local Frito-Lay truck.' It depends where you are on the continuum and how you define "local,' which is a term that is really up for grabs."
Milchen is less concerned about what he calls faux-local campaigns in cities where there is already a strong local business organization. "It's more of an educational opportunity than a problem, so long as they respond to it," he said. But in places where local enterprises are not organized, he fears these corporate campaigns may succeed in permanently defining "local" for their own benefit. Michelle Long shares that concern: "That's my fear. People are going to do diluted versions and hold the space so that real campaigns don't get started." (emphasis mine)
I am not very knowledgeable about the music promotion business so I hesitate to get involved in the current discussion of the SPI Music Fest but I believe this has a certain relevance to what we are trying to promote within the local movement. The small venue, indie artist, type of festival is extremely popular among many people with discretionary income. Perhaps this is not the type of festival which is appropriate for the actual SPI Music Fest, but it is certainly an event type that should not be disparaged and would need to be promoted differently than the mega-concert but could still attract a sizable audience and to use the dreaded phrase, "put heads in beds".

Local-washing has prompted local business advocates to reconsider their language. Many are now using the word "independent" more than "local." Controlling language is critical, said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, who is pushing for tighter regulation of the word "organic," as well as rules governing terms like "natural," "sustainable" and "local." "We've been fighting so long without the help of federal regulators that some people have forgotten that tool."

But perhaps local-washing will ultimately make corporations even more suspect and further the case for shifting our economy more in the direction of small-scale, local and independent. "I think the fact that the chains are trying to play the local card, in a way, makes it easier for us," said the ABA's Cullen. "I think people are going to recognize that these aren't authentic and that's going to make the real thing all the more powerful." (emphasis mine)

South Padre Island, are we ready to be Indiebound?

article is from Hat tip Aarons Books

No comments: