Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Frances Moore Lappe on power and happiness

There's no question that "fighting the good fight", in terms of small businesses, is an uphill battle right now. Even the most successful independent businesses are feeling the pinch, and some of our less successful members are facing real and immediate worries about survival. With the bottom line looming large in everyone's mind, it can be tempting to narrow our focus, concentrating on the bad news and on the things we can't seem to change. 

Frances Moore Lappe (author of Diet For a Small Planet and founder of the Small Planet Institute, right here in Cambridge), presents another alternative:

I think she's on to something. When times are hard and things seem out of control, as they do now, it can be comforting and energizing just to be doing something that you feel makes a difference, whether it solves the problems of the world or not. I think this was the real genius of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression--not necessarily that it provided jobs (the work was hard and the pay was low), but that it provided empowerment. The word has become something of a pop psychology catch-phrase, but perhaps it's time to revisit it. To what extent do economic depression and psychological depression need to go hand in hand? How much can feeling empowered actually give us more power over our circumstances? We can't change the economy, but we can change the way we do business, and the ways in which we relate to each other and to the community. That can make a big difference to our mental "bottom line", and maybe have some effect on our financial one, too. 

Community activist organizations and business advocacy groups (like CLF) may not solve the problems of the world, but they reinforce the idea that we're not alone, that there are some variables we can affect, and that we're making a difference just by participating in something that's larger than ourselves and our own worries. 

It's time to take back our power. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Good news for independent businesses around the country

As my Somerville Local First colleague Joe put it recently, "Go ahead and look, the sky really isn't falling."

The bad news is that the economy is in trouble--we all know that. The good news is that, thanks to Local First and Buy Local campaigns, and a gradual increase in consumer awareness, locally-owned businesses actually did better than their big-box counterparts in many cities this holiday season. Here's an article from our friends at the Minneapolis-based Institute For Local Self-Reliance:

Independent Retailers Outperform Chains Over Holidays, National Survey Finds

MINNEAPOLIS, MN (Jan. 15, 2009) - In an extremely challenging economic climate, independent retailers are outperforming many chains, a national survey has found.

The survey of 1,142 independent retailers in a wide range categories (books, toys, clothing, etc.) and across all 50 states found that holiday sales at independent stores declined an average of 5.0% from the same time period in 2007. That compares favorably to most competing chains, including Barnes & Noble (- 7.7%), Best Buy (-6.5%), Borders (-14.0%), JC Penney (-8.1%), Macy's (-7.5%), The Gap (-14.0%), and Williams-Sonoma (-24.2%).

This week, the Commerce Department reported that December retail sales overall were down a record 9.8% over December 2007.

The survey also found that independent retailers in cities with active "Buy Local" campaigns reported much stronger holiday sales than those in cities without such campaigns. "Buy Local" or "Local First" campaigns have been launched in dozens of cities and towns over the last few years. Independent retailers in these cities reported an average drop in sales of 3.2%, compared to a steeper decline of 5.6% for those in cities without an active Buy Local initiative.

The survey was conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research organization, in partnership with several independent business organizations, including the American Booksellers Association, American Independent Business Alliance, American Specialty Toy Retailers Association, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, Independent Music Store Owners coalition, and National Bicycle Dealers Association.

An identical survey last year likewise found that independent businesses in cities with Buy Local campaigns reported stronger sales than those in communities without such an initiative.

"During this holiday season, many more customers mentioned their intentional shopping at local businesses," said one survey respondent. "I think that the tough economy this year played a huge role in my customers intentionally shopping locally. They felt strongly about supporting those of us who are sticking it out," said another.

Ninety-five percent of the retailers surveyed said that the fact that their business is locally owned matters to their customers. That's up from 82% in last year's survey.

"This invaluable data is proving the case that communities are rallying behind independent businesses - and a strong reminder that these entrepreneurs are the bedrock of a local living economy," said Doug Hammond, executive director of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.

"Since the economic downturn began, we've seen an explosion of interest in communities looking to start Independent Business Alliances and buy local campaigns," said Jennifer Rockne, director of the American Independent Business Alliance. "This survey shows such interest is justified. These campaigns are making a huge difference for local businesses and their communities."

"Even as household budgets shrink, many people are choosing to direct more of their spending to local businesses," said Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which conducted the study. "This could be a key factor in getting the economy back on track. Study after study has concluded that locally owned businesses deliver more jobs and significantly greater economic benefits to their communities."

There's no question that things are tough all around, and probably will remain so for a while. These are the times when it's more important than ever to invest in your local community and jump-start your local economy. The major corporations won't be leading our country out of this recession, but with enough support from their communities, independent businesses can.

Locally yours,


Monday, January 19, 2009

CLF comes to Facebook!

CLF has now joined the Facebook generation with our very own group on everyone's favorite social networking site. If you're already on Facebook, simply search for "Cambridge Local First", and then join our group to receive updates, via your Facebook newsfeed, on all the latest local news. If you're not a Facebook member yet, now is a perfect time to join (though I'll warn you, it's dangerously addictive). If you want an easy way to keep your finger on the pulse of local business in Cambridge, there's no better way to do it than through our Facebook page.

See you there!

Locally yours,


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The power of a united front

Frank and I spent a good portion of last Friday morning delivering the new 2009 Member Directories to our member businesses. This year, most of the deliveries have been accomplished by volunteers--an impressive achievement, given the stresses of a holiday season that, for most business owners (and consumers) is even more financially tenuous than usual. As we went around to our member businesses, though, we noticed that very few people actually had their directories on display. Some folks had a display case in a drawer, some of them had put it in a basement or stockroom, and some said "Well, I ran out of directories a while ago, so I figured I'd take it down." Now, this directory contains listings and advertisements for over 260 locally-owned Cambridge businesses--an undeniably powerful piece of advertising for one small booklet that can be slipped into a purse or glove compartment. So, I found myself asking, "why wouldn't our members, who pay good money every year to be part of Cambridge Local First, want to take advantage of this opportunity?" The answer, I think, comes out of the general malaise that's affected this country for the past eight years, a sort of fatalism that leads to a "someone else will take care of it" mentality. I don't have to put these directories out at my business. Someone else will do it. There's 260 of us, after all--surely someone has more time than I do. I'm working overtime just to pay the rent these days. I'll put them up next month. Besides, anyone who comes in here has already found my store, so why do I need to advertise it with this directory?

The ironic thing is, this is exactly the kind of ethos that's led to the current economic collapse. Both consumers and business owners have gotten into the habit of taking the path of least resistance, which almost always means the path of greatest self-interest. We've reached a point, though, where both the politics and the economics of self-interest have failed us. If we want to survive this current crisis, we need a rising tide that lifts all boats, and that tide is focus on the community. If 260 other business owners in your town were proudly and prominently displaying a brochure that advertises your business, you'd expect that to make a difference in your bottom line. But what if only 200 were doing it? 150? 100? 50? The point of diminishing returns comes rapidly when everyone expects someone else to pick up the slack, and the effects are seen much sooner and more devastatingly in a local economy, where no one is interested in bailing us out.

Displaying those directories goes beyond the advertising benefits, though...it also sends a silent message to consumers about what kind of place they're doing business in. If a consumer walks down the street browsing through a dozen independent shops, and in each one she sees the owners visibly supporting both their fellow business owners and the city where she lives, it raises her awareness that local business is more community-oriented than big business. Displaying visible symbols of commitment is a powerful tool for religions and political organizations, and it can be a powerful tool for local businesses too...you can boost the morale in your community at the same time you're boosting your profit margin.

The money that our members pay for membership each year is a small investment, and one that can either multiply in value or end up as good money thrown after bad, depending on the extent to which everyone is willing to work together. Both locally and globally, this is not the time to think small--it's time to step up and be part of something bigger. I think that can happen in Cambridge, and that's why I work here.

I hope that others in this city feel the same way. Let's start working on that united front today.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

CLF Neighborhood Event in December

We know that the holiday season is a busy time for most of our members, but if you have time to take a break, join CLF at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on Friday! This month's Neighborhood Event is being sponsored by Blue Magruder and HMNH, and we'll have refreshments provided by The Fishmonger, Savenor's, and Darwin's. Take a few minutes to catch up with your CLF colleagues, have a glass of wine, and enjoy the holidays. As an added bonus, admission to the HMNH is free until 8 p.m.; if you've never seen the Museum before, this is an excellent chance to do so.

The party starts at 5:30, and refreshments will be served until 7:00. See you there!

Locally yours,

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The beginning of Cambridge Local First's Blog

It seems like everyone has a blog these days...and why should CLF be any exception? Since we're launching a new website and a new Members' Directory, it only makes sense that we should launch a new blog as well. Keep an eye on this spot for news and musings about CLF's mission, local Cambridge affairs, and the Local First movement around the country.

I'm Dan, and this is CLF on the World Wide Web. Welcome!