‘It’s all local’: Big Box managers sound off

TRAVERSE CITY – "Buy Michigan First," "Buy Michigan Now," "Take The Buy Michigan Pledge," "Think Michigan." With our state's economy now ranked 33rd in per capita income, it's hard not to argue with those slogans initiated, respectively, by state government and public relations firms. The logic of spending your consumer dollars on local products made by local businesses that employ local people is sound. But "local," it turns out, is a loaded word, say managers from some area big box stores.

Aren't they just as local as anyone else?

"It's all local," said Gaylynn Howton, sales manager of Borders Books and Music in Grand Traverse Crossing. "The people who work here put our blood into this community. I've sat on the local school board. I shop at local farmers markets. We have a great relationship with other retailers like Horizon Books. If you work in tandem with local businesses and employ local people, how is it not all local?"

Howton has worked for Borders Inc. for more than a decade; in that time she's seen the company sink thousands of dollars of grant money into the northern Michigan area. Beneficiaries of this largesse include the Father Fred Foundation, the Women's Resource Center, Lake Ann Elementary School, and Child and Family Services.

"We've done a lot for service organizations. Local service organizations. It's just that we don't ring our bells or toot our horns."

As proof that her Borders store is as local as any other retailer, Howton points to the intangibles provided by their coffee shop. On Wednesday mornings, for example, a quilting and knitting group meets there. And every night of the week the spot is a favorite first real world introduction for online daters. Safe, easy to find, and a great conversation starter.

Down the block at the Traverse City location of The Home Depot, manager Jared Dixon said he's well aware of the "buy local" advertising and PR campaigns but stressed that working for a corporate entity with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, doesn't make him feel any less of a local business. He's been with the company for 20 years, seven of those in Traverse City.

"We are so involved in this community, we employ 140 local people, who all live and work and play right here and so, based on that, I feel like we are a large part of this community. And, if we take care of the community, the community will take care of us. My opinion is, that's no different than what you would call a local business."

Dixon pointed to the corporation's eight core values, No. 2 of which is, "Giving back to our communities." Most recently this was in the form of a $2,500 check and a team of volunteers to build raised beds at the Traverse Area District Library's burgeoning children's garden.

"If that's not local, then tell me what is," he said. "We don't just write a check, we back it up with associate volunteers who go out on their own time and do the actual work."

Still, labeling yourself as a local business may have as much to do with your product mix as the size of your operation, said retailing consultant Jay Wedeven of The Strategic Edge, who has advised mom-andpop stores, downtown development agencies, and national chains. "I'd want to know how much latitude a manager at a big box store had to purchase locally before I'd label them a local business. Do they have the ability, the dollars set aside, to go out and make local orders for just their store? Do they have authority to present a merchandising mix to the local consumer? That would make good business sense."

The managers at both Borders and The Home Depot said they do have some authority to purchase locally. This authority is more limited at Toys R Us, where the product mix and the community service funding has a thoroughly national aim. Department supervisor Jennifer Witte agrees that community service in any form makes you a member of that community, whether the person who signs your paycheck is next door or miles away. At this big box store, the charitable efforts are reversed: donations from local shoppers in the Traverse City store can help the world at large, she said. In May, the store collected $3,000 for Autism Speaks and by mid-June had collected another $1,000 for Save the Children's Blankets for Babies program.

"I don't know why that hasn't gotten as much attention as other local efforts," she said.

One reason may be embedded in what's commonly called "corporate culture." Many additional big box store managers were approached for comment and declined, saying that a rule governing their employment is that they are forbidden from talking to local media – a counter-intuitive rule, certainly, if faraway CEOs want their local efforts, in both employment and community building, to be appreciated and acknowledged. Part of being a local business is the occasional public attaboy or attagirl – an oversight Border's Howton said she's used to.

"Chain store contributions may not make the news, but the people who need the help, and I'm talking about the local people who benefit, know all about it," said Howton. "This spring we gave out 300 stuffed bunnies to kids in crisis. Didn't make the news, but those local children were just as happy as if it had." BN