Buy local good thing for Northumberland

First published: April 19, 2007

A great initiative to encourage Northumberland County residents to buy local products deserves attention. Starting with food, the campaign is expected to expand to other industrial products and services.

Now shoppers will know they are helping their neighbours when purchasing items with the slogan “Proudly Northumberland”. The sticker contains the county’s blue and green colours in two slim curved lines beneath a stylized leaf emerging from a seed. Initially, it will appear on farmer’s gates and at farmers’ markets throughout the county, but the big hurdle will be getting stores to stock local products.

The provincial government is paying $12.5 million to boost rural development, and this kind of branding is part of the budget. There is no doubt a similar campaign will be launched by the Central Northumberland Chamber of Commerce, according to president Dave Hughes.

The concept of buying local is spreading across the country. A “Buy Nova Scotia” campaign to help struggling farmers was being suggested in February by NDP leader Darrell Dexter. He was looking for $250,000 for an ad campaign to encourage Nova Scotians to buy local produce and meat. A similar program helps farmers in Manitoba.

This is not the first program to support local business. One example is when Cobourg tried a “Shop Locally” campaign in 2003.

This is almost a no-brainer. But, it is not as simple as one thinks. Of course, the popular farmers’ markets across the county are excellent examples of local products being sold. And, for those who make the effort, it is a great help to the regional economy. But, as Northumberland Economic Development director George Borovilos points out, it is much tougher to get the large grocery chain stores to buy in. Certainly, some grocery stores do purchase local produce. But, there are many opportunities to support local farmers and greenhouse operators all year round.

What makes it even tougher is the increasing amounts of foreign products finding their ways on to grocery store shelves. Many of us delight in being able to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables all year from places like Chile, Mexico and the United States. Truly, it would be highly unfair to ask this practice to stop. The stickers will go a long way to helping shoppers recognized the local products on store shelves. All we are being asked to do is choose Northumberland when given the choice.

What may be a little more complex is a buy-local campaign for the retail sector. There are so few locally owned stores in the face of growing numbers of big box retail and franchise operations. With Home Depot about to open within the next few months, we will witness once again the incredible stress on our own locally owned businesses. The extent these massive stores will go to in trying to dominate the marketplace is unbelievable. Belleville city council approved a 175,000 sq. ft. Lowe’s Hardware store; nearly double the size of any of the major retail outlets in Northumberland.

Also, online shopping is cutting into all businesses. When a person can search any store in North America at the click of a mouse, often getting below local sticker prices, it is hard to compete. The best example is bookstores, which must face competition from the likes of Amazon, Chapters/Indigo and Abe books.

But, there is a fine distinction to be drawn when supporting “local” retailers. Many businesses in Northumberland are franchises – owned by a local person, but part of a provincial, national or international chain. There are certain advantages in owning a franchise, but it also means a portion of the profits leave the county to fill bank accounts somewhere else. It is becoming increasingly rare to see truly independent stores. These are the people who try to go it on their own without the massive marketing and branding associated with franchises. Normally, these are niche markets, serving a narrow part of the market successfully.

Still, either way, it is important to purchase locally. When a television set is bought at a locally owned store, the money stays within the community. When it is purchased from a chain store or big box, the money leaves. It is really that simple.

But, for some, there is no choice. When people cannot afford to pay some of the higher local prices, the choice is already made for them. We can never forget the needs of these shoppers must be met, as well. Yet, for those who can make choices, it is vital to think before buying.

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