By Jessica Swanson
Photos by Todd Gunderson
The 3/50 Project, launched a year ago by a Minneapolis retail consultant and former shopkeeper, has inspired thousands of businesses across the country to educate their customers on the importance of shopping locally. The reason it worked? It gives customers specific instructions and retailers simple tools.
Donna Jensen popped 3/50 Project flyers into her customers’ bags whenever they bought something at her Washougal yarn shop, It’s a Crewel World Yarn and Stitchery Shop. She printed up the flyer offered at www.the350project.net. It explains the simple concept: choose three independently owned brick-and-mortar businesses and spend $50 at them each month.
Donna, who sold her business after 24 years to Washougal resident and longtime customer Jennifer Powell in April, felt it was her job to educate her customers about how crucial it is to shop locally.
“I don’t think they have a clue,” she said. “I think they will go where they can best spend their money, and they spend $10 in gas to save a buck.”
The flyers spell out the benefits of shopping locally in black and white: “If just half the employed U.S. population spent $50 each month in independently owned businesses,” it reads, “their purchases would generate more than $42.6 billion in revenue. For every $100 spent in independently owned stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures. If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 stays here. Spend it online and nothing comes home.”
Donna said her customers would come in and show her yarn they bought on the Internet, or look at her yarn and then go find a better deal online.
“They tell me they didn’t have to pay tax and all this,” she said, “but the shipping is more than the tax would be and (shopping locally would) keep the tax dollars at home.”
Jennifer is going to support local spending in new ways when she takes over the business. She will feature yarn from Clark County alpaca and sheep, and she plans to connect those learning to knit with local designers who can help them bring their visions to life for a small fee.
Becky Milner has owned a “bricks-and-mortar” business in Vancouver for 35 years, Vintage Books. She learned about The 3/50 Project from one of the booksellers associations she belongs to. She keeps the 3/50 poster in her window and makes a point of thanking customers for shopping in the store, tailoring merchandise to regulars’ taste and frequenting other independent businesses.
But Becky’s business depends on the sales that the store does online, theoretically taking money out of the communities that those online customers live in. Very early in the store’s life, when its focus was automotive manuals and classic car ephemera, Becky offered a mail order catalog. The store started selling online in 1994 and today is considering social media. Without the online traffic, her business may not exist at all.
“The extra 20 to 25 percent (in sales) are really important to us,” she said. “We carry books that our local customers wouldn’t want. It lets us carry a broader selection of books. Technology is always changing, as are the avenues for selling books.”
Wendy Kosloski’s Longview business, Teague’s Interiors, is also a supporter of The 3/50 Project. (Businesses can be listed on the project’s website as “supporters.”) The fact that materials are available make it easy, and she said “it’s nice to see a larger group of people” pushing consumers to shop in their own towns and neighborhoods.
Wendy said the fact that 2009 ended with seven new businesses in downtown Longview is “a sign of the upturn,” but that the downturn may have actually helped some independent businesses stay afloat.
“There are things about the recession, like tightening your belt and watching gas, that helped us,” she said.
Wendy also believes that online shopping has hurt physical shops, but her store is somewhat protected because it is “custom decorating with a galley and boutique,” and her services must be done in person.
Wendy is going far beyond flyers and posters to support local businesses, especially those with a creative angle. The upper floor of her building, the historic Title Building, is now the Working Art Center. Seven connected commercial spaces with access to shared common areas are for lease at $300 a month. They are being marketed to studio artists and small businesses. In the Commerce Building next door, seven studio apartments are for rent, creating a charming and historic live-work environment unique in Longview.
As Wendy sees it, “independent businesses offer knowledge and service close to home and out of the ordinary.” And she, like her indie counterparts in Southwest Washington, continue to educate their customers and support each other.
“When I go into a shop,” said Becky Milner, “I say ‘Thank you for being here. Thank you for being independent.’”