What Does it Mean to ‘Buy Local’?

Buying local.


Buy Local has become the small business meme of this decade, but what does that mean for a small town? Does it mean buying from brick-and-mortar businesses in this online shopping era, or patronizing only independent businesses?

Historic towns and villages all over the country are fighting the growth of chain stores in their communities, as shown in this New York Times article. They believe these types of establishments remove the charm and authenticity of their municipalities. Even though chains are brick-and-mortar, they don’t consistently  translate to being local.

While chains do provide jobs by hiring locally, the revenue made isn’t reinvested back into the community. However, small business owners are more likely to donate to non-profits (i.e. schools and the arts), spend some of their earnings in town, personal taxes are paid locally, etc.

Brooks Brothers will be replacing Banana Republic, and Urban Outfitters may also be coming to town in the Talbots spot after their two locations merge. Add these to Design Within Reach, Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Kate Spade, Lindt Chocolates, Origins, Ann Taylor, et al, and it sounds like Princeton has a nice mall in town. But we all know this isn’t the case.

When Burger King left town several years ago, I thought it might’ve been part of a plan to weed out fast food franchises. Considering Subway opened a while back, Qdoba just opened last summer and Cheeburger Cheeburger will be opening soon, this proves my theory wrong.

This triggered the memory I have of a small Connecticut city. Stamford had a vibrant downtown including local shops, lots of restaurants, a theatre, and a museum, much like Princeton. Bedford Street was equivalent to Nassau Street until the Stamford Town Center opened adjacent to it in 1982. It was a mall that brought in big name stores, i.e. FAO Schwarz, Abercrombie & Fitch (the original concept), and Williams-Sonoma, anchored then by Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, and J.C. Penney’s. As a result, The New York Times featured an article about the mall titled A Town Sells Off Pieces of its Soul.

Princeton does NOT have a mall, but it does have many chains and franchises that are often mall tenants. It’s my belief that our zoning and planning departments consider chains an asset, but what about Princetonians? Are they ambivalent about the topic? Has Princeton sold off pieces of its soul to be more cosmopolitan, or does it maintain the right mix of chains and local businesses?

The Buy/Shop Local movement is gaining traction across the country. Hometown Princeton and Small Business Saturday (thanks to American Express) are certainly trying to influence people to patronize the independents, and they help even out the playing field a bit with their shop localcampaign. After all, isn’t there supposed to be some sort of home court advantage? Local businesses understand the community’s culture. Unfortunately in this economy, the bottom line is price, and chains have more buying power and powerful advertising as an advantage.

Mrs. G’s in Lawrenceville is combatting this problem by being a member of a national buying group offering competitive pricing to go head to head against the big box stores. The small business owners of The Terra Momo Restaurant Group and Hamilton Jewelers have multiple locations, and can benefit from their buying power and/or long-standing presence in the community, but what happens the rest, especially newcomers?

Looking at the downtown areas of Hopewell Borough, Pennington, and Lawrenceville, it’s clear that they are striving to keep their charm without chains, yet they still have healthy central business districts, proving that it’s not necessary to bring in the big guns. And yes, Mercer Mall in Lawrenceville, is home to many formula stores and franchises, but the businesses in the Main Street Historic District is still able to maintain the feel of Americana.

Should Princeton fight to keep out chains to preserve its historic charm and be more sustainable, or embrace them to give customers the brands/services/food they want? Chains could lessen the need to travel to malls or the city, reducing our carbon footprint. Does buy local mean shop in town or only buy from independent businesses? What are your thoughts?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Robin Birkel April 26, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Martha, it is true that many talk about wanting to be sustainable, but don't buy local. Sometimes change is slow, and people have to learn how to break their habits. Some need a mix. As much as I love local produce, I enjoy eating pineapple.
Conrad C. April 26, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Caralien: There is a sustainability movement here, of course. But compared to the offerings in other places, like the west coast, in terms of a "sustainability" movement, we have a long way to go. It seems like that word is always being thrown around town but it's a lifestyle for many years elsewhere. I've lived in other places and been all over the world. The type of business that I do meshes with the whole "sustainable" and "green" movements and I can assure you Princeton is far from being the center of the universe in terms of that. Like I mentioned above, we have an identity problem. I've lived in a couple of locations around town over the last couple of years and I see people moving out. I used to have interesting mixes of neighbors...professors, artists, artisans, authors architects. Now replaced by entire blocks of stock brokers, corporate execs, bankers and lawyers. Not a crowd that's really into green and sustainable. Half of my block doesn't bother to recycle. Another example I read about recently, might have been on this Patch: lawn pesticides. If it's that much of an issue, why not ban them? Dozens of other town sin NJ have done so, some many years ago. Why can't Princeton? We have a start here with so many things "sustainable"...but there needs to be a united movement and an identity. Too many different things going on and agendas. There are big things gearing up in some of the towns mentioned in these comments.
Conrad C. April 26, 2012 at 11:03 PM
Robin, I would love to buy all local! I am a huge supporter of that. And many wonderful places have been mentioned in these comments. However, we need more! More variety and local support. At first glance, downtown Princeton has a ton fo shops and restaurants. The restaurants, as I've mentioned in other topics, only a handful are real good and I'm glad some of them came out on top in recent polls on this Patch. Shopping is lacking. The borough is what, two square miles? How many ice cream and yogurt shops do we need? Or salons? Nail places? Restaurants that serve the same type of ethnic foods? Flower shops? You can easily cut out half of any of those categories and be just fine. Caralien mentioned that we have more of things than say Hopewell. Yes, we do. But we have multiples that we don't really need. And many of those towns are just as walkable. I was in downtown Pennington today on a business related errand. I walked everywhere, lots of local businesses right downtown.
MacLean Agency May 08, 2012 at 02:48 AM
Our family operates an independent insurance agency in town. MacLean Agency on Nassau Street next to Panera bread. I find that most people and businesses are trying to buy local. We insure over 150 local businesses. There are few supporters of the "buy local" movement however who resist change and do not necessarily practice what the wish for themselves. I would ask anyone reading this article to give your local business another try. Don't try to save $10 on a pair of shoes by shopping at kohl's, a 5% discount on a blouse or nice pair of pants. Give a local shop the business so they can remain here making the town what it is. Triangle Reprocenter for your copies and printing, Hulit shoes, PJ's Pancake house, Olives Deli, all of Terra Momo's establishments are just a few of Princeton's best. We had a customer once look at our client list and say, "You have my whole life in this list, I have my dry cleaning at Craft, My lunch at Olives, My lawyer, my doctor, my photographer and I live in the building owned by that company..." It's what being a local business is. Being a part of a person's life. I am going to buy local tomorrow. Why don't you do the same?
Caralien May 27, 2013 at 02:58 PM
Everyone on my block recycle & most are part of the composting program. We have over a dozen new families. I see a lot of new gardens on the front lawns, and yes, there is plenty to shop for if you're interested. The last I checked, there was one town, possibly in Georgia, which had curbside composting. So much for lack of green? We aren't Lambertville, and we have always had stockbrokers and financial investors living in Princeton--it's a nice place. I just don't see the issue. If it were not for their property taxes, we would be paying higher property taxes. New immigrants live here, they're priced out of the other pretty towns. It irks me when people complain about what is good here. We have more than .5-1 mile of retail. Cheeburger is laughable, as is horrid Naked Pizza, but that's okay. I'm still happy with Cross Culture. Da's Thai didn't fare well when it moved. Mistral & Agricola (in addition to Terra Momo group) like local producers. It just seems silly that so many complain about everything, leaving blinders up to what is actually good. Look around--Princeton remains more colourful in terms of people, religion, income, & sustainabilty than the towns that surround us, yet that too isn't good enough. We so far won on the Kiosks, but lost on the Alexander buildings & Dinky It's a big small town. Busloads of tourists don't drop off in Lawrenceville, Hopewell, Pennington, Moantgomery, or West Windsor. We can also walk to grocers & 2 farm markets


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