Buy-local movements play pivotal roles in shaping their communities all across the United States, and for the Greater Madison area, Dane Buy Local (DBL) has been going strong for 15 years. But every buy-local movement has to fit wherever it exists, taking into account socioeconomic, political, and lifestyle factors. To bring all those perspectives into one room, the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) is having its annual member meeting in Madison this April 22 through 25.
Even those familiar with Dane County’s buy-local movement may never have heard of AMIBA. President of AMIBA Colin Murray says, “AMIBA is essentially a trade organization of buy-local groups. It’s a way for us to share information, ideas, and have conversations with buy-local groups around the country.” Derek Peebles, director of AMIBA, adds, “The simple mission of AMIBA is really just to build that strong local-economy movement by supporting the growth and development of local business alliances and networks.” This includes providing tool kits and knowledge to areas wanting to start their own buy-local movements.
Wait a second, wasn’t the buy-local movement something that existed before Amazon really took off and online shopping became king? Are they still really needed? Short answer: yes, this would be a weird article if they weren’t. Colin says, “The point of the buy-local movement is not to put the big-box stores out of business, it’s to remind people that there are plenty of local businesses that are doing great things and offering wonderful products, and we should be supporting them.” A message just as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.
“In recent years, the challenge has shifted,” says Colin, “from these big-box stores to the online stores. Amazon accounts for about 50 percent of all of the total sales and transactions that take place online. Many of the local businesses don’t have the firepower, the ability, to deal with online challenges and offer things that Amazon offers: same-day delivery, a huge inventory selection. The challenge has changed, but it’s definitely still there.”
Derek agrees. “A lot of what we focus on and try to highlight are how the effect and the impact of spending dollars locally at these businesses is really the backbone of the local economy.” It’s a message often lost in placing the value of convenience above everything else. Some people feel having to dress up to go shopping on Monroe Street, State Street, or Atwood Avenue is an inconvenience. Big-box stores evolved into a place where you can shop in your pajamas any time of day, necessitating only the occasional shower to be tolerable to others. The next step was removing the shower so you can shop at home in your underwear, and the step after that is better left unconsidered.
When a buy-local movement is successful, the quality of life for everyone in the community improves. Derek says, “Consumers need to be educated continuously on the impact of what it means to spend dollars locally and to keep dollars circulating within a local economy because that’s what creates jobs, sustainable jobs, at the end of the day. It’s what creates community identity.” Local dollars allow greater investment into the things a community values, whether it be parks, events, or youth programs.
And it’s not just where the money is being invested that matters, but how it’s being invested. “From an economic perspective,” says Derek, “a lot of cities spend the majority of their dollars and time toward attracting businesses. There’s always been a gap in economic development around the lack of time spent toward retaining and expanding the local businesses that are already there.” This is actually something consumers have a lot of control over. Our dollars are our voices, and when we invest in big box over mom and pop, we’re making a statement. No one is saying you don’t have the right to speak with your money how you want, but rather that we should be aware that we are saying something in the first place.
Recognizing our voice is really at the heart of why AMIBA is putting on the conference. It’s ensuring local businesses have the tools to be places where customers build relationships with store owners and leave satisfied at the end of their shopping experiences. Derek says, “A lot of this conference is really around gathering the local-economy leaders along with independent business owners in Madison, bringing them together. What we eventually want AMIBA to be as an organization, and what it’s been serving for the last 20 years, is to continue to be that clearing house of best practices for our movement.” Members across the nation aren’t just meeting to grow and refine their own movements, but to improve and inspire other buy-local movements.
AMIBA put their mission statement into practice when putting together the conference. The hotel for the conference is local. The event space is Harley Davidson. Promega and the Lussier Heritage Center are hosting the evening events. The food is from Bunky’s Catering and Blue Plate Catering. “As much as possible,” says Colin,” we’re trying to use our local resources.”
From the consumer’s perspective, I will say shopping local isn’t always easy. But there’s a sense of connection when I go out of my way to invest in the things I value. For example, I like beer, so places that specialize in Wisconsin beer and will work to get their hands on something I request are important to me. I also like board games, and many smaller game stores don’t just sell games, they provide a place to play and meet new people. As I get to know the owners of these businesses, I often learn of their efforts to better our community. Colin says, “Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper and dig a little harder.” No one person can do it all, but they’re not supposed to. The buy-local movement is for everybody, and AMIBA reminds us that we make an impact.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie.