Revenge of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker

  • AUTHOR: Paula Hay
  • DATE: 04/14/2008

In recent months I have been doing more work for area businesses interested in taking advantage of rising demand for local goods. Their customers suddenly have a taste for all things local and, contrary to prevailing wisdom, are willing to sacrifice both convenience and low prices for the sake of shopping locally. “Local” has become a viral, open-source brand fueled as much by desire to strengthen community as by concerns over product safety and global warming.

In the past, goods from overseas were often expensive and scarce, relegated to those with respectable levels of disposable income and the envy of those with upwardly mobile aspirations. Globalization has reversed this state of affairs, making local goods expensive and scarce: the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker went out of business when they could no longer compete with inexpensive imports. Now that they are gone their goods have increased dramatically in value. Local is the new exotic, and buyers are willing to pay for it — if only they could find it.

This situation is creating boatloads of opportunity for entrepreneurs just as corporate America is hunkering down for a potential contraction. There are numerous reasons for this, but from what I have seen it is primarily because the “local” brand is defined by its lack of supply. Demand is much higher than producers can meet, and even in areas where supply is plentiful, infrastructure gaps often prevent goods from getting to market.

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I can hardly imagine a greater boon for small business or for entrepreneurs in search of a business model: local- and regional-level supply chains need to be rebuilt in order to serve a highly desirable market. Whatever one’s skill set, interest, or commitment level, there is almost certainly a need for it somewhere among the missing links. Some of the “buy local” entrepreneurial projects I’ve seen that have impressed me include:

  • A woman in Pennsylvania who grows organic wheatgrass in her basement to sell to local health food stores and juice bars;
  • A mobile poultry-processing facility in Vermont that travels to small chicken farms, saving them the expense of shipping their birds back and forth for processing and allowing them to deliver fresher product to market;
  • In California, a community-level investment circle in which people loan money to their neighbors to pay off credit card debt, delivering significantly higher returns to the investors, significantly lower interest rates to the debtors, and a nice percentage to the organizer;
  • Numerous “mompreneur”-driven buying clubs, in which a person (usually a mom) spends perhaps 15 hours per week collecting money and orders, picking up goods from producers and delivering these to the club members;
  • The emergence of a national-brand/local-sourcing strategy, led primarily by Whole Foods and Organic Valley, that paves the way for more ambitious “buy local” entrepreneurs;
  • In Providence, a broker who compiles data regarding locally-produced goods, and arranges sales and delivery of these to retail outlets;
  • Countless cottage industries making personal care products, clothing, crafts — yes even candlesticks, from the wax of backyard bees no less.

The list of interesting and creative ways to make money within the “buy local” framework is much too long to include in its entirety — the takeaway point being that opportunities are abundant, regardless of how scary the market report might be on any given day.

Because the “buy local” consumer movement is so new, and because it is by nature local, there are few large-scale media to turn to for statistics and traditional market research. However, there are a handful of good URLs. I would suggest:

Thanks to consumer interest in buying local, many small businesses are weathering a difficult economic situation better than their national counterparts. It is an opportunity from which any small business or aspiring entrepreneur can potentially benefit, and is well worth investigating.

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