By Frank J. Rich
The discussion over local business growth and opportunity is a coffee break staple in America. In times of economic pressure the conversational pitch naturally rises. Notwithstanding the cyclical nature of business, the “flattening” of the so-called “world economy,” and the effect of creative (destructive) innovation, small business becomes the focal point of discussion when we break for America’s brew. But is it conversation or real commitment that motivates our spoken support for local business? Do we really care about the local bike shop or farm store selling American-made goods and home-grown produce, or does a quick check of the price determine where we shop?
The giddiness in the market of late—usually the first roar of recovery—has market watchers gushing over the numbers: the Dow (industrials), the NASDAQ (technology), the auto industry, housing starts, employment, big oil, big banks, and big retail. Main Street businesses, long the bell weather of sustained growth, are typically left out of the discussion. Why?
They are less endowed of resources, the integration sophistication of larger companies, the technology of the day, and the predatory marketing ethic that so often drives large companies, from big banks to multi-unit tire stores. What they do have is the desire to make a difference in their community, and they put their money where their heart is. Not so for big banks and big box stores. But a closer look reveals the oddity in the fabric of the American psyche that belies the best intentions of local townspeople.
Americans speak about their communities with pride in their schools, town traditions, culture, and the spirit of town enthusiasts, the vocal few who give them personality. However, under the guise of “community making” we are too often in the process of “community breaking,” and in the process we feed our compulsions more easily than our compassion.
The Browning of America
The Wal-Mart’s, Costco’s, and Best Buy’s on the edge of towns across America may be fitful for local businesses (in place) when they arrive, but the long-term affect on local business may have proven to be a net naught. This, largely because of the energy and enthusiasm in Americans’ desire to make better lives for themselves and a better community in which to live through local enterprise—service and commercial. It is the will to create opportunity in each that not only mirrors the American DNA but also acts out the extraordinary drive that makes America an arcade of shop owners across the land. Americans have a greater impact on the health of the U.S. economy than could any stimulus package. Local spending recycles American dollars and keeps town economies strong while securing a vital national economy.
In “so-called” efforts to preserve the natural beauty of local landscapes, towns across America enforce predatory regulations on local business, often to the point of open hostility between the business community and local government. Local planning and building boards are legendary for “opinion judgments” instead of invoking the ordinance that applies; often heard telling store owner applicants, “The town doesn’t need another deli,” or pinning beautification costs on new business or buildings while holding CO’s hostage.
Local chambers, despite charters that commonly read: “… to promote a business environment that sustains economic vitality, promotes economic development and enhances the appeal to locate, conduct, and grow businesses in the area,” routinely accept money and promote “distant local” companies in favor of locals that have similar products and have made a local commitment often spanning generations. Their view is often that everyone’s money is painted green; while failing to recognize that local business is colored of the sweat, blood, and tears of the hope in community building by local citizens. This is the “browning of America.”
Local banks that rely on local citizens and businesses for their financial health seldom advertise locally or fund local initiatives. Their employees may live in town and spend their wages locally, but the bank would sooner send direct mail to homes and commit fortunes to national advertising than sponsor a community event or advertise in a community paper. I have been banking with a small community bank for 31 years, which has never had to offer $150 to open a new account, and has grown consistently over the years, even through the “great recession.” I can accomplish any banking transaction via telephone, email, or its online banking system, from anyplace on earth. Can you say that about your bank?
A recent study by the Online Publishers Association found that consumers trust online advertising on local newspaper, magazine, and electronic media websites, and are more likely to take action after viewing ads on them.
Newspaper websites have a slight lead with 46 percent of consumers responding to local ads by either purchasing the product, visiting a store, or conducting more research. Electronic media websites came in second with 44 percent and magazine sites followed closely with 42 percent. Media sites are also outperforming portals (single function websites) and all other online media.
Restaurants topped the list with 38 percent consumer response, followed by 28 percent for grocery stores, 25 percent for banks and financial services and 19 percent for doctors and health facilities.
Why are Americans turning to local produce and American made goods and services? Because they realize that growth—personal and community—comes from individual initiative for a cause. “Cause marketing” is America’s new battle cry, and it’s likely to make a deafening sound in the years to come. The cause is the re-greening of America, but will local governments, chambers, and national chains hear it? Trade imbalances will eventually drive us to a “no tariff economic model” or bankruptcy. Despite the popular rhetoric, no nation will win a trade war with the US, even though many will suffer some, the result will be fewer tariffs and richer economies.
In the song by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, Killing Me Softly, the lyrics decry the pain of despair for a lost love. The haunting strain of words and music seems to find what aches in us as we listen to it, a fringe relationship with a similar experience. Perhaps, it is also the song of small business in America, struggling against the good news of financial markets, big banks, and even bigger government as though the talk of it would gather Main Street in its draft. The plight of local business may be understood as much by its smallness and limited resources as the contradiction that local government, chambers, and citizens alike have adopted a bicameral nature in saying one thing and doing another.