What are the real values behind buying local?

It may not always make sense to buy local. Consider what added value - or values - the local business offers, before making your decision.

By , Guest blogger

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    Customers buy produce after work at Dick's Market Gardens at the Copley Square farmer's market in Boston, in this photo taken in October 2007. Buying from farmer's markets or locally-owned businesses keeps the money in the community and may offer other values as well.
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Yesterday, Get Rich Slowly posted an article entitled Why I Buy Local, in which J.D. makes the case for buying from local suppliers, even if the costs are a bit higher, because of the secondary benefits.

J.D.’s support of local businesses goes quite a bit further than mine does. In fact, near the end, he discusses supporting a local business whose primary product isn’t even something he likes:

Twice a week for the past two weeks, I’ve walked up to the store on my way to the office. I buy a Mexican Coke and a cinnamon roll. (I don’t actually like coffee.) Now, I know that my $8 per week isn’t going to keep the place in business. But I hope that it helps a little.

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I buy local (and I encourage you to do the same), but I’m rather pragmatic about it. I’ll buy local if the business offers a product (and support for that product) that approaches the value I’d get elsewhere. I won’t buy a product simply because it’s local – my decision to buy something is independent of whether or not there are opportunities to spend locally. Local businesses, however, do often add elements of the purchase to the equation that large chains simply can’t add.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about.

I buy a lot of the meat we use for grilling and other purposes from Iowa State University’s Meats Laboratory. Why? The prices are very competitive, the meat is treated with an incredibly high standard, and the people you buy from can answer virtually any question you might have. The fact that the money stays local (within the university) is icing on the cake. The overall value proposition of the meat laboratory beats any other one that I’ve found in the area.

I buy most of my new books from Amazon. The only non-chain bookstore in the area went out of business several years ago, although there are a few in Des Moines (most of an hour away). Amazon’s prices are better than the chains, plus they deliver to my doorstep. The overall value proposition of Amazon beats the overall value proposition of visiting an independent bookstore that requires an hour and a half round trip to visit.

I buy most of my vegetables from the local farmer’s market. This supplements what we grow, of course (and you’ll see more of it this afternoon). The actual monetary cost is comparable to the local grocery stores, but the money goes straight to the suppliers, many of which are using purely organic techniques to raise their vegetables and offer to let me come over and walk through their fields if I want. They also know a lot about the different varieties on offer and have lots of preparation suggestions. The value proposition here clearly leans towards the farmer’s market.

I buy toiletries and household products from Sam’s Club. I can get the basic toiletries I need here for substantially cheaper than any other chain in the area. The only “small independent grocer” near me is actually further from my home than Sam’s Club is, thus it’s not really part of my local community. In either case, most product problems I have here would be dealt with by the manufacturer, not the local store. The value proposition (for me) leans towards Sam’s Club.

I buy most of my board games at the local gaming shop. I almost always pay a higher price when I shop there. On the other hand, the shop is constantly holding free gaming events of all kinds which I participate in. The shop does a great job of building community, connecting game players with other game players and so on. Without the shop, this wouldn’t exist. Beyond that, the employees are pretty knowledgeable about the games on sale there. The overall value proposition leans towards the local shop, though I do order online for some harder-to-get items.

Here’s the simple question I always ask myself when I make the decision to buy from a locally owned business or from a large chain: what extra value am I getting from buying local? The benefits in terms of local business taxes are one factor. The additional support is definitely a big factor. The reduced distance from farm to table is a notable factor, too.

But what do those factors add up to? I can’t give you an answer for that because the answer varies from person to person and situation to situation. If you don’t use the extra features of a local store, then those features aren’t valuable to you. The key is thinking about them.

The take-home message is this: local businesses have the ability to add a lot of value to certain types of purchases. Keep that in mind and decide for yourself what the best choice is the next time you’re trying to decide whether to buy your vegetables from the farmer’s market or the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

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