Dani Nisbet has a very simple explanation for why she helped form a “buy local” group in South Portland this year.

When she shops at a chain store, she said, a big chunk of her money goes elsewhere. The people who get that money “don’t come back and shop in our community,” Nisbet said.

That premise is behind a growing number of groups that advocate buying local in Maine and nationally. A Portland buy local organization will mark its fourth anniversary this summer. Nisbet’s group started earlier this year. And a Biddeford-Saco buy local effort kicked off last week.

The groups are tapping into a “localism movement” that affects the choices people make in buying everything from produce to shirts and in choosing where to eat and do their banking, said Ed Collum, an associate professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of Southern Maine.

Collum said the movement has grown out of a recognition that there’s an ideological component to spending. When people buy sneakers, they’re not just getting something for their feet, he said, they’re tacitly supporting how the material for those shoes was obtained and whether the factories where the shoes are made uses child labor and pollutes local streams.

“More and more, people are becoming political consumers,” and the buy local effort hopes to tap into a sense that a locally owned store is inherently better for the community than a big national chain. Supporters of the effort cite studies that show that for every $1 spent in a chain store, 13 cents stays in the local community in the form of salaries and purchases from local vendors. The same purchase at a locally owned store, the studies say, results in about 45 cents staying in and circulating through the community.

Nisbet said her interest in the idea was sparked about a year ago, as the national recession seemed to hit hard in the city where she owns Belissimo, a hair salon on Route 77.

One day, when she was taking her mother to a store across town and suggested they go to another shop instead, her mother refused to change her plans.

“They know me there,” she said of the store she planned to go to.

Nisbet said she hopes the South Portland buy local campaign can foster a similar level of loyalty to locally owned shops among more residents in town, overcoming the bigger marketing budgets of the national chains.

She said the group has about 110 businesses signed up, ranging from restaurants and a book store to a dry cleaner and a physical therapy office.

Most buy local efforts focus on consumers, but in Portland, it has also led businesses to buy local, said Stacy Mitchell, a board member of Portland Buy Local and a senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In the Portland group’s latest annual survey of its 325 members, 60 percent said they’ve been buying more services and goods for their business locally since joining the organization.

But Mitchell said some national chains are making worrisome counterattacks.

She calls them “faux local” campaigns that seek to “redefine ‘local’ to simply mean, ‘here.’“

She said those campaigns come from trade groups representing big retailers, like those in shopping malls, that try to position the local mall as the new downtown. She said one campaign encouraged people to shop locally and “what they meant was to shop at your local mall,” populated mostly by chain stores.

Collum noted that he’s also see chains such as Walmart touting locally grown food or locally made products and noted that other chains sometimes “rebrand” some of their stores to make them appear to be locally owned.

But, Mitchell added, those moves may be a sign that the buy local effort is gaining steam.

“They must be detecting a shift in the public consciousness” that requires a countermove, she said. “When we say ‘buy local,’ we mean locally owned and independent.”

Reuben Bell, the owner of the Blue Elephant cafe and catering in Biddeford, said he doesn’t think a business can rely completely on a buy local resurgence, but it can be part of a broader marketing effort.

He plans to put some coupons for his business on the Biddeford-Saco Buy Local website to gauge its impact and also said that some member-only business networking events that are planned could lead to some additional catering jobs.

“Every little bit helps,” Bell said. “It reminds us that we have a network of local businesses that can work together.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]