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Jun 28, 2019

Buying local – should you?

Paul Clapham looks at the positives and negatives of promoting 'local' goods

Local is a word that carries a lot of baggage, some of it good for businesses, some of it less good. Let’s look through those options, starting with the positives.

Customers increasingly like the virtues of ‘local’. That is what they say. Look for instance at the work put in by Waitrose and Morrisons. Both say that they’ve researched their customers in depth and the answer comes back consistently ‘we like and would prefer to buy locally produced goods’.

Easy peasy, then. Buy local. It’s what customers want! There are lots of reasons why it should be true, but is it? I strongly suspect that this is one of those issues where the customer loves the idea in principle but when they get their wallets out they’re not quite so keen.

I’m not suggesting that your customers are a bunch of rogues and liars rather that ‘local’ is a somewhat woolly virtue that has hardly been sold to consumers for a long time. Little wonder about the wooliness in that case.

This matters because of Brexit.

Increasingly British made products are going to be in demand because they will be cheaper plus, I predict, there will be a general enthusiasm for British produced brands – if not Brexit will prove a commercial disaster.

So, if you are going to make a commercial benefit of ‘local’ first you need to define it. It could be as simple as “we are committed to stocking product produced in Britain.” That might be England/ Scotland/Wales.

If you can narrow that down further, so much the better. Cricket bats from Duncan Fearnley (Worcester), footwear from Umbro (Manchester), tennis balls from Price of Bath etc etc. I suggest this will demand a marketing effort from the whole trade but that will be worth the time and money.

Stressing that you aim to stock local product and defining local clearly is a strong marketing message and a powerful point of difference. Is it practicable, however?

Clearly it is important to do your research carefully. It’s no good finding out halfway through developing an ‘All Yorkshire sports shop’ that in practice you can’t achieve more than 60 per cent. You might consider starting with an all Yorkshire section and working upwards.

Incidentally you may well be disappointed by how few prospective suppliers beat a path to your door. Personally I’d be jumping with joy at the prospect of a retail customer just down the road but apparently a lot of suppliers hide their light under a bushel.

There are plenty of other benefits. If you are buying local you are supporting local employment. Anyone with children will like the thought that their kids don’t have to move away to get a job. If they choose to that’s quite different.

OK what are the negatives of ‘local’? First, for some people it will mean parochial, not the message you want to convey. It can also mean old-fashioned, unimaginative, limited small and lots more. It is in essence the opposite of new, clever, original and creative.

You will note that these negatives are all perceptual rather than practical. That doesn’t make them irrelevant, it just makes them tougher to negate.

Get to know your local councillor. He or she knows all the right people in local government and almost certainly finds local politics fascinating which is a good thing because 95 per cent of the rest of us find it dull in the extreme. Without these enthusiasts nothing worthwhile would get done.

I hate to refer to party politics but unfortunately it’s a necessity in this case. Who you vote for is exclusively your own affair, but when choosing where to put your cross consider the views, promises and record of candidates regarding supporting small local businesses.

Needless to say they will all swear blind that they are your biggest supporters and you can’t trust any of the others. I’d say ‘vote for the most convincing individual’ regardless of party, somebody you could talk to about business in your town, someone you think would phone you back if you asked for their help.

So who’s on your side when it comes to being a local buyer and seller? Start with your county council. Like many business owners you probably think that the return on your personal council tax and business rates is pitifully poor. Here is a potential exception.

County councils, rather than local councils, have the responsibility to give active support to businesses in their area. This comes with both good news and bad news: some of them are excellent and some are rubbish at this part of their remit. You’ll have to pick up the phone and talk to them. Better still go and see them. My personal experience here in Kent has been good to excellent.

They have a service called PinK – produced in Kent. I suggest that’s exactly what you want, so take a look and tell –yes, tell - your County Council to copy.

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