Phoenix Businesses Look to Educate Consumers on the Value of Independents

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In many communities across America, the onslaught of corporate retailers and large chains is a pressing issue for local businesses trying to remain competitive. That's certainly the case in the Phoenix metro area (which includes Glendale, Scottsdale, and Tempe), where a coalition of local businesses is seeking to change the market landscape by educating consumers and local politicians about the economic value of supporting independent businesses.

In March 2003, a group of three metro area businesses -- Changing Hands Bookstore, Stinkweed (an alternative music store), and Monti's (a restaurant) -- officially formed the Arizona Chain Reaction (AZCR), a coalition of independent businesses. "[AZCR] was the result of big box syndrome," said Cindy Dach, marketing and events manager for Changing Hands. "Our city is void of street culture because developers and city officials permitted big box stores to develop in great numbers -- Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and Costco…. [E]veryone is herded into these containers."

Though Dach stressed that AZCR is not an independent business alliance, but a "public awareness group," its goals are very much the same as well-publicized independent business alliances, such as the Austin Independent Business Alliance (AIBA) and the Boulder Independent Business Alliance. AZCR wants to get across a simple message: It's better for your community, your city, and your state if you shop at locally owned businesses.

"We want to raise awareness and educate consumers about the benefits of keeping dollars in the community and in the state," Dach said. She cited the Austin, Texas, study, "Economic Impact Analysis: A Case Study, Local Merchants vs. Chain Retailers," which showed that for every $100 consumers spend at a chain bookstore only $13 has local economic impact. Conversely, $100 spent at the Austin independent bookstore BookPeople or at Waterloo Records returns $45.

The idea for AZCR was conceived around holiday time last year, Dach noted, but the businesses were too busy to act on the idea. In March of this year, the three stores worked to let other local metro area businesses know about the coalition -- and that it was free to join. "We all went through the phone book and highlighted all the stores than promoted that they were an independent business," she said, "and we sent them a letter. We had 100 people at the first meeting in March."

Today, the organization boasts a membership of 120 businesses and meets once every two months.

Overall, Dach said, one of the key benefits to belonging to AZCR is, simply put, power in numbers. For example, member businesses will often do joint advertising, she noted. "We took out a two-page spread in the Phoenix New Times, with 10 retailers on one page and 10 restaurants on the other. We got a great rate because we were able to buy the two-page spread -- so we have more power than we had before. That allows us to be competitive with chains on a local basis."

Additionally, the local public radio station gave AZCR a special advertising deal -- if a member buys two spots, AZCR gets a spot free. "A lot of our businesses did that," Dach said. "And the radio station loved it because it gave them so many businesses to contact."

AZCR has created an AZ Chain Reaction promotional banner and window stickers with the slogan "Think Independently, Buy Locally." Dach noted that the coalition is hoping to hold a panel discussion this spring, as well as a weekend "independent sale" sometime next year.

A priority for AZCR is educating the public and local politicians. For instance, Changing Hands and other member businesses place informational cards throughout their store. On the front, the card explains to customers how much more a local business contributes to the economy than do chains. On the back it explains what AZCR is, how a business can join, and how to support AZCR. "Many members of AZ Chain Reaction use it as a business card," Dach noted. "It was a great tool on Harry Potter day…. We always place them in our gift certificates."

Dach noted that AZCR must also drive home its message to city politicians. "The Scottsdale city council gave Wal-Mart a huge incentive to open up there," she said. "Rather than give $2 million to one store, how about [a total of] $2 million to many local businesses?"

AZCR holds a meeting once every two months, and "it's turned into a social event," Dach said. "People are asking for more! People are excited about brainstorming ideas." --David Grogan