Using ‘Buy Local’ to Your Advantage

In filling niche, entrepreneurs fill coffers

0722_greenpetsTwain Belgrave had been a dog groomer for 10 years when he looked around his Fort Greene, Brooklyn neighborhood and noticed that pet owners were taking their pets into Manhattan or to nearby Park Slope for day care. What the neighborhood needed was a local shop that offered doggie daycare, preferably with a back yard.

And Green Pets Spa & Boutique was born, opening in May 2009 in a small storefront with a yard on the vibrant Myrtle Avenue corridor. The shop offers pet grooming, pet daycare and eco-friendly pet supplies. It’s not breaking even yet, but Belgrave says he’s already cross-promoting with other Myrtle Avenue businesses and getting referrals–in part because of the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership’s “Home Grown and Locally Owned” initiative.

What Belgrave did is Entrepreneurship 101 for most business owners: Identify a niche and fill it. But by opening a shop in his own neighborhood, appealing to neighbors and working with other local small businesses, Belgrave is both a product of and participating in a growing “buy local” culture. It’s a culture, some say, that can help entrepreneurs better target their businesses and keep more wealth in the community.

“Buy local” campaigns are a green spin on the old merchant association idea: Support mom-and-pop businesses, sure. But don’t just do it for civic pride. Do it because locally produced goods create fewer carbon emissions, said Susan Witt, executive director of the E. F. Schumacher Society, a group dedicated to strengthening local economies.

“The most sustainable economy is one in which goods consumed locally are produced locally,” she said. “You know the ecological conditions under which they were made, you are not dependent on goods made outside the region and you know how the workers are treated.”

But for buy-local campaigns to really increase community wealth, shop owners like Belgrave have to shop locally, too. If a local woman spends her money at Belgrave’s shop, and then Belgrave shops locally for goods and services, local money circulates quickly in the neighborhood, and more local business owners get a piece of it.

If Belgrave can’t find a local business from which to buy eco-friendly pet supplies, for instance, then there’s a niche for another entrepreneur to fill.

“What a ‘buy local’ campaign helps identify are the leaks in the local economy,” she said. “Where businesses can’t refer to another local business, there’s a new business opportunity.”

But buy-local campaigns can do something else: They also bolster small businesses in hard economic times. Nicole Jones, owner of Sensual Steps Shoe Salon in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood organized with other neighborhood businesses to create a “buy local, buy African American” campaign to keep their money in the neighborhood.

“It’s necessary, or we’ll close, like most of the other black-owned businesses,” she said. “We’ve created a co-marketing opportunity to help insure we inform all our clients about each other’s businesses and are working on future events to share clients.”

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