In the mid-1980s, when a McDonald’s franchise was proposed for the piazza at Rome’s iconic Spanish Steps, a gourmet (what we now call a "foodie") named Carlo Petrini and a group of fellow-minded activists in Italy staged a demonstration and launched a quiet revolution.
Called the Slow Food Movement, that first push 28 years ago has become a global organization that has boosted the fortunes of small farmers and artisanal food purveyors in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.
Its manifesto reads, in part:
Against the universal madness of the Fast Life, we need to choose the defense of tranquil material pleasure. Against those, and there are many of them, who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of a sufficient portion of assured sensual pleasure, to be practiced in slow and prolonged enjoyment ...
Now that sentiment to support local growers, grocers, and restaurants is extending to other areas of retail, giving smaller businesses something of an advantage in their competition with big-box stores.
Small stores vs big box chains
One of the biggest local-store success stories of the current retail era is the surprising survival and even revival of the local bookstore. While bookstores were once written off as Amazon's first victims, in the past four years new bookstore openings have outpaced closings.
Despite the inability to compete on price, the local bookstore has found a way to appeal to customers. Customers see an advantage in not just browsing amid actual books, but also turning to staff for recommendations and general book chats. Author readings, a more diversified set of merchandise (selling toys, candles, and other sundries beyond bookmarks and blank books) and selling used as well as new books have helped indie bookstores draw people in.
And while independents may have to charge more than Amazon or chains do for each book, they have also learned to reduce some of their costs by updating their inventory methods and other business tools.
The buy local movement has helped these retailers too, giving people another reason to buy the same book they could find more cheaply on Amazon. Shopper and bookseller might talk about not just books they've read, but also about their children (who may be at the same school), local news, or some new restaurant in town, and the bookseller might even give their dog a treat.
And while e-books may seem to be the future and in some measure they’re here to stay, bookstores aren't just catering to aging customers; the great majority of young people in their teens and twenties prefer print.
A sense of higher quality
At a bookstore, a record store, or an appliance store, most of the inventory is the same that can be found nationally. In those cases, it is customer service that wins the day — one type of superior quality for sure.
Some local retailers, though, sell jewelry, clothing, or other products that are unique or of higher quality (or both) than what can be found at chain stores. It’s this same inclination that is making Etsy so successful: lovely things, made and sold by talented people who use superior materials and, above all, care. Many times the person behind the counter is the same one who made those earrings or knitted cap, refurbished a barn door, or found and fixed up that vintage typewriter.
This appeals to people who agree with the slow food movement, but also to millennials, who, studies show, desire to wear and own things that will set them apart.
An antidote to fast fashion
Even fast-fashion powerhouse H&M is now slowing things down somewhat, offering higher-quality, less trendy apparel in its COS (“Collection of Style") stores. The disposability of fast-fashion bothers many younger shoppers, and those issues appear to be gaining traction.
Local retailers have the opportunity to make or curate higher-end merchandise that doesn’t carry the stigma of being made in overseas factories that mistreat workers or harm the environment. Of course, being more expensive is no guarantee that any item is guilt free, but local retailers interested in making a point of it have an excellent pitch to make to their customers.
Supporting friends and neighbors
Cities and towns also have a role to play in boosting the “buy local” movement. Very often, it’s smaller retail stores that fill vacant buildings in downtowns. And compared to e-commerce, at least for now, local retailers are more often passing on more tax revenues to city and state governments.
Plus, those business owners generally have more of a stake in local politics, schools, and other issues that larger corporate retailers operating in any given area may not even be aware of.
The idea of “buying local” can, as with bookstores, lead people to opt to pay more, just to keep their dollars close by. That attitude, surprisingly, actually grew stronger during the recession, according to Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
"There is this larger, cultural shift ... to buy local,” Mitchell told CNN. "Rather than pulling back and buying into the idea that they could save a few bucks elsewhere, in many communities, people seemed to make even more of an effort to steer their spending to businesses owned locally.”
Would you like to see more retail news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Retail Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Retail Dive's look at the potential merger between Staples and Office Depot.