Editorial: With Local Marketing Appeals, it Often Comes Down to Dollars and Cents

Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 20, 2015

Consider the tales of two “locals.” One concerns an Amherst store that believed, mistakenly, that “local” is marketing gold. The other is a new citizens’ group, School Local Northampton, which plans a rally Thursday on the steps of City Hall and seeks to build loyalty to the city’s traditional public schools.

The Amherst shop closed last weekend. The school group is just starting out. The founding ideals of both declare that a special value attaches to goods and services created in this area. One of the granddaddies of this marketing notion is CISA’s Local Hero campaign, which turned 16 this year and can take credit for helping to restore the viability of Valley agriculture.

While people pay lip service to favoring locally raised food or patronizing family-owned businesses, consumer decisions don’t always favor local competitors. It’s important to consider why.

The Amherst market All Things Local, at 104 North Pleasant St., closed just short of its second anniversary unable to pay its bills after finding sales fall this year, not grow. It had sought to replicate a farmers’ market indoors by stocking local goods.

All Things Local didn’t need to pass out a mission statement — the purpose was right there in the name. What it didn’t succeed in doing, it appears, was change people’s shopping habits. The store’s managers may not have grasped that the “local” economy tends to be a frugal one. Sales volume would have grown in year two if curious shoppers returned, perhaps hooked by the “local” promise but converted into repeat customers on value. They would have shared this good news with their friends and All Things Local might still be at it.
The store may also have hit the biggest wall in most consumers’ lives: too little time. It wasn’t meant to be a one-stop shop for busy people who need that convenience. That’s an important lesson to those planning the Amherst Community Co-op, which models itself on the River Valley Market in Northampton.

Across the river, the volunteers who will officially launch School Local Northampton this Thursday at 5:15 p.m. don’t have to fear that the city’s schools will close due to the lack of customer interest.

Or do they? Before a celebration behind City Hall, supporters will hear from the city’s mayor and school superintendent, as well as Barbara Madeloni of Northampton, president of the state teachers’ union. While others may moderate their language, expect Madeloni to push back hard against Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to create more charter schools, which many see as an attack on public school teachers. Funding for public education, in her world, is in crisis.

Julie Spencer-Robinson, president of the local teacher’s union, says charters and school choice cost public schools in more than financial ways. They pull out families who would become strong and vocal advocates of public education. School Local Northampton exists both to defend the city’s public schools and to inspire families with children to remain loyal to traditional public schools. In the past few weeks, backers have been meeting face to face with families at school open houses. They invited people to pose for photos with signs stating what they like most about their schools. “Community” was a popular message.

The group would be wise to keep this grassroots effort in focus — and not allow differences over charter schools to define it or embitter its ranks.

Parent Megan Zinn put it well when she told Gazette reporter Gena Mangiaratti schools are stronger when people buy in, “in a similar way that it’s a stronger community if we’re all buying from our local stores and farms.”

The Northampton public schools appear to have a powerful, and needed, new ally.