What Does it Mean to 'Buy Local'?

Buy Local has become the small business meme of this decade, but what does that mean for a small town? Does it mean buying from brick-and-mortar businesses in this online shopping era, or patronizing only independent businesses?

Historic towns and villages all over the country are fighting the growth of chain stores in their communities, as shown in this New York Times article. They believe these types of establishments remove the charm and authenticity of their municipalities. Even though chains are brick-and-mortar, they don’t consistently  translate to being local.

While chains do provide jobs by hiring locally, the revenue made isn’t reinvested back into the community. However, small business owners are more likely to donate to non-profits (i.e. schools and the arts), spend some of their earnings in town, personal taxes are paid locally, etc.

Ralph Lauren on Nassau Street in Princeton

Brooks Brothers will be replacing Banana Republic, and Urban Outfitters may also be coming to town in the Talbots spot after their two locations merge. Add these to Design Within Reach, Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Kate Spade, Lindt Chocolates, Origins, Ann Taylor, et al, and it sounds like Princeton has a nice mall in town. But we all know this isn’t the case.

When Burger King left town several years ago, I thought it might’ve been part of a plan to weed out fast food franchises. Considering Subway opened a while back, Qdoba just opened last summer and Cheeburger Cheeburger will be opening soon, this proves my theory wrong.

This triggered the memory I have of a small Connecticut city. Stamford had a vibrant downtown including local shops, lots of restaurants, a theatre, and a museum, much like Princeton. Bedford Street was equivalent to Nassau Street until the Stamford Town Center opened adjacent to it in 1982. It was a mall that brought in big name stores, i.e. FAO Schwarz, Abercrombie & Fitch (the original concept), and Williams-Sonoma, anchored then by Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, and J.C. Penney’s. As a result, The New York Times featured an article about the mall titled A Town Sells Off Pieces of its Soul.

Princeton does NOT have a mall, but it does have many chains and franchises that are often mall tenants. It’s my belief that our zoning and planning departments consider chains an asset, but what about Princetonians? Are they ambivalent about the topic? Has Princeton sold off pieces of its soul to be more cosmopolitan, or does it maintain the right mix of chains and local businesses?

Reasons to Buy LocalThe Buy/Shop Local movement is gaining traction across the country. Hometown Princeton and Small Business Saturday (thanks to American Express) are certainly trying to influence people to patronize the independents, and they help even out the playing field a bit with their shop local campaign. After all, isn’t there supposed to be some sort of home court advantage? Local businesses understand the community’s culture. Unfortunately in this economy, the bottom line is price, and chains have more buying power and powerful advertising as an advantage.

Mrs. G’s in Lawrenceville is combatting this problem by being a member of a national buying group offering competitive pricing to go head to head against the big box stores. The small business owners of The Terra Momo Restaurant Group and Hamilton Jewelers have multiple locations, and can benefit from their buying power and/or long-standing presence in the community, but what happens the rest, especially newcomers?

Looking at the downtown areas of Hopewell Borough, Pennington, and Lawrenceville, it’s clear that they are striving to keep their charm without chains, yet they still have healthy central business districts, proving that it’s not necessary to bring in the big guns. And yes, Mercer Mall in Lawrenceville, is home to many formula stores and franchises, but the businesses in the Main Street Historic District is still able to maintain the feel of Americana.

Should Princeton fight to keep out chains to preserve its historic charm and be more sustainable, or embrace them to give customers the brands/services/food they want? Chains could lessen the need to travel to malls or the city, reducing our carbon footprint. Does buy local mean shop in town or only buy from independent businesses? What are your thoughts?


  1. says

    My opinion of shopping locally is supporting small business. I will go to Jacks family owned hardware before I go to Home Depot. I go the farmers market or supermarket & not Walmart. I may save money going to the big chain stores. What people don’t realize is that saving .50cents now is killing the entrepreneur down the line. Also after the big chains have ran the mom & pops out of business with unbeatable prices they raise their prices back up again.

    • shutterbuggeek says

      Before malls, the ‘burbs were all about the ‘mom and pop’ stores. Now, even malls have new competition with the ‘big box’ stores, including, Walmart, Best Buy, Sam’s Club, et al., and the internet. Buying local brings us back to our roots, and is beneficial for everyone in the community!

  2. Marjorie B says

    I find your comparison between Stamford and Princeton irrelevant, having lived in both places (In fact, I lived in Stamford between living in Princeton as a child and again as an adult with my own family). In the early ’80’s, Stamford sought to reinvent itself as a corporate center, building enormous glass and steel edifices for the likes of Champion International, Xerox, etc., and the behemoth mall on Broad and Atlantic, which was maligned for its fortress-like design that discouraged pedestrian entry from the street. The end result was that even though some small businesses, the theater, and many restaurants did manage to flourish, they did so only because of the M-F 9-5 crowd. In the evenings and weekends, the city was deserted, as a majority of the workers commuted back to wherever it was that they came from each day. As a result, many smaller enterprises were unable to keep afloat.

    Princeton has a completely different demographic and feel. That being said, I do believe that we should encourage “local” business with our patronage as much as possible, in light of the fact that being a small business owner is ever more difficult, especially in a high rent location such as Princeton. What we need to realize is that a good mix of “chain” and “mom and pop” is what is needed to maintain a vibrant and diverse local economy, because the small business owners of hair salons and restaurants, for example, depend on the likes of Ann Taylor and J Crew to draw customers to their shops.

    • shutterbuggeek says

      Marjorie, I understand that no two towns are alike, but the common thread is that small businesses have to compete with chains, franchises, and online commerce. The trick in Princeton is balancing them all to create a vibrant downtown, without sabotaging the livelihood of the independents.

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