How much would it help independent small businesses if each person who lived or worked nearby came in and spent a few dollars every month–money that would otherwise go to an online retailer or a big national chain? According to research from a nationwide campaign called the 3/50 Project, if half of employed Americans spent $50 per month total at three locally owned shops or restaurants, small businesses’ annual sales would rise by a whopping $42.6 billion.
Especially important in these days of cash-strapped municipalities: A big chunk of those funds stay in the community as added tax revenues, local hiring and reinvestment. Shopping and dining close to home may also help save businesses. The Minneapolis-based 3/50 Project is one of about 100 similar campaigns now flourishing across the United States, and these seem to have had some effect: Independent retailers in cities with strong buy-local efforts have seen revenues drop 2.6%, versus 5.6% in other cities, says a 2009 study from the 36-year-old nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Cinda Baxter, the 3/50 Project’s founder, put in 14 years as a stationery store owner and now heads a retail consulting firm, Always Upward. “I’ve lived it,” Ms. Baxter says. “I know how frightening it can be to wonder if you can make payroll.” The 3/50 Project’s message to consumers, she says, is straightforward: “Think of three local businesses you like and don’t want to see disappear. You’re already spending money somewhere, so how about earmarking $50 a month for them? It’s achievable and affordable.”
The idea is catching on in Brooklyn. Ms. Baxter will give a presentation at St. Francis College on Remsen Street on Aug. 18 to highlight ways that merchants and restaurateurs can encourage people to think local before logging on to, say, Amazon.com.
Some borough businesses are already on board. Melinda Morris, who owns Lion in the Sun, a card and stationery store on 7th Ave. in Park Slope, heard about the 3/50 Project early on, since “Cinda started in March 2009 by reaching out to other stationery store owners,” she notes. Last year during the holiday shopping season, Ms. Morris printed out hundreds of copies of “the short, well-worded flyer on the 3/50 Project website about why it’s important to shop locally” and handed them out to customers. “We also posted one in the window,” she says. “I can’t put a dollar value on what it did for sales, but it did make a difference.”
Says Irene LoRe, who owns Aunt Suzie’s Restaurant a couple of blocks away on Fifth Avenue and has been in the restaurant business for 30 years, “I don’t think most people realize how fragile small businesses are and how close to the edge many of us operate. I’ve been through several recessions, and this one has been by far the worst.”
As executive director of the Park Slope Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District–which is co-sponsoring the Aug. 18 gathering, along with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce–Ms. LoRe hopes the evening will inspire many more entrepreneurs to join the 3/50 Project’s cause. “We really need to educate consumers: If there’s a local place you like, become a loyal customer,” she says. “The 3/50 Project is the perfect vehicle for that message. We’re just getting started.”