Julie Levitch took a sip of her iced tea and motioned to the empty storefront next to the coffee shop. “That’s why we’re doing this,” she said. “If there’s nothing to symbolize Scottsdale or Phoenix, then what is there?”
Levitch, her husband, Randy, and their two young sons, Rex and Judd, have embarked on a mission: for one full year, they will buy everything from only local businesses in the hopes that their efforts will spark the local economy.
That means no Starbucks, no trips to Wal-Mart, no late-night runs to the Taco Bell drive-thru, no Safeway, Target, Walgreens, Macy’s or Toys'R'Us. They will chronicle their challenge on the blog, One Local Family.
“There are so many things that this touches – the economy, the environment, how you raise your kids,” Levitch said. “And I don’t think it’s a political issue either. I’m trying not to let my personal feelings get caught up in it; this is just about my family’s journey,” she said.
The family's plan
The adventure started on January 1, but the idea of focusing more locally was floating around for a while. “We always thought, ‘Why aren’t there more local businesses?’”
The Levitch family lives in North Scottsdale – a nice, upscale neighborhood in the Phoenix metro area, but it’s not known for its lively cultural heritage. It’s carefully planned and fairly new. It has a lot of strip malls and chain restaurants. While this typifies Scottsdale, it can probably describe many American neighborhoods.
When the family finally did find a local restaurant they truly loved, it closed down. “I thought, ‘Oh no, not that place!’ and it got me really angry,” Levitch said. This coupled with her husband promoting Small Business Saturday spurred her decision.
“We’re shifting our whole lifestyle,” she said. “We can’t just hop over to Home Depot anymore.” But Levitch’s mission is more than that; it’s about thoughtful shopping. She’s not just replacing a Starbucks coffee with one that’s been locally roasted; she’s asking, “Do I even really need to buy that coffee at all?”
Giving up Starbucks is just the tip of the iceberg. The Levitchs have to open a checking account at a locally owned bank, transfer their prescriptions to a local grocer and are investigating if they can even buy gas. “Gas will be really interesting,” Levitch said. “I have to really ask who owns what and how that works, because I don’t think anyone knows.”
Because the project is still new, there are roadblocks that the family hasn’t yet confronted. Last week, it was office supplies. “And it will get harder,” Levitch said. “I don’t want to buy kids’ underwear at a consignment store, and I don’t want to pay $20.” Although, she's willing if she absolutely has to – but maybe just one pair.
“I know there will be things we can’t find,” she said, “but it’s been easier than I thought.”
Dealing with the hiccups
With two young children – Rex aged six and four-year-old Judd – it hasn’t been an entirely smooth process. “Certainly there was the initial yelling about French fries at Chik-fil-A, and at the farmers market, Rex told one of the farmers he wants to buy national products,” Levitch relived, smiling.
“But he doesn’t know; he just wants French fries. We don’t want to deny them things, so we have to balance that. We have to be creative about how to approach it.”
More than anything, Levitch wants her children to understand their impact on the community. “I want them to be more thoughtful consumers, more adventurous eaters, and I hope to inspire them to be different, to be individuals,” she said.
Another hurdle has been breaking the habit of what Levitch calls mindless shopping. “You know, you go into Target for one thing that’s $5, and you end up leaving with a cart-full of stuff that’s $100,” she said. “And it’s just because it’s on sale or buy one get one free, not because you actually need it. That’s a lot of wasted time and money.”
With all that extra time, Levitch and her husband have more quality time with their kids. “Instead of spending Saturday shopping at Target, we go to the park,” Levitch said.
They’ve also began to de-clutter the house and garage. “We’ve been at this house for 11 years, and you just accumulate so much crap,” she said. “We’re hoping to get rid of a lot, and what we do buy will be more interesting and possibly far more environmentally friendly."
Keeping small business in business
“I hope it sticks. I hope after 12 months we don’t go on some Wal-Mart spree, because there are so many long-term benefits,” she said.
For one, buying from locally owned businesses benefits the economy. A Civic Economies study found that for every $100 spent at a local business, $73 stay within the local economy, while if the same amount is spent at a non-local business, only $43 stay. What this actually means is that $73 recirculates throughout your community instead of being used elsewhere.
Say, for instance, you buy a blueberry muffin at your local bakery. Chances are that bakery will use your money to buy blueberries from a local source, because it's cheaper and easier. That money will go to the local farmer's family and to pay their workers.
Also, when you spend money at that bakery, you're increasing demand for their products, which means they will eventually need to hire more people. So, you're helping to create local jobs as well.
If you’re thinking about trying a project of your own, Levitch suggests simply, “venture beyond you’re little local area. There are lots of places out there.”
According to the same Civic Economies study, you don’t even have to venture out too often. If the average American patronized a local business one out of 10 times, there could be nearly $140 million in new economic activity and more than 1,600 new jobs that provide more than $50 million in new wages.
By supporting local business, you’re likely supporting small businesses that employ more than half the private sector and account for 65 percent of the 15 million net new jobs created between 1993 and 2009.
Besides economy, Elissa Hillary, executive director of Local First of West Michigan, the third largest Local First campaign per capita in the U.S., says there could be significant environmental benefits because the goods are traveling shorter distances to reach you.
"I know one of the primary benefits that I found is this connection to the community, the feeling that we are building relationships with other people," she said. Plus, you get to be a tourist within your own community, exploring new options and being more creative.
“There’s a sense of peace, which might sound weird. But it’s peaceful knowing we’re not going to Target. We’re not shopping, Levitch said. "We can do so many other things, and with all of that out of the mix, we have so much extra time."