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Hard times may spur more to Buy into the Circle


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For small business owner Mary Anne Kennedy, buying from local companies whenever possible is worth the effort, even if it costs more than procuring products from outside the area.

“If the difference in cost was 5 percent or less, we would go with it,” said Kennedy, owner of Primary Source Inc., a promotional products company in Clive. “Now, with (higher) freight costs, it’s much less costly for us to buy locally, and it helps to keep our costs low for our customers.”

Nearly five years ago, Kennedy was among the first business owners to enroll in Buy into the Circle, a buy-local campaign spearheaded by the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The initiative has added about 100 businesses each year, and now approximately 500 companies have pledged to try to shift at least 5 percent of their out-of-town spending to local companies.

“I’m a firm believer in buying locally,” Kennedy said, “so we didn’t hesitate to participate in it.” After signing on to Buy into the Circle, she made buy-local a formal company policy. “It made it clear to the staff that we should buy local whenever we could,” she said. Kennedy estimates her company exceeded the 5 percent goal in each of the first couple of years it participated, by buying more merchandise from area suppliers and switching to a local payroll service.

Another Buy into the Circle participant, Bill Weidmaier, owner of Iowa-Des Moines Supply Inc., helped coordinate the campaign’s launch in 2004.

“I think it’s opened up the eyes and minds of people to looking locally and to give more consideration to local businesses than in the past,” he said “I think during this softer economic time it’s even more important for businesses to think local.”

Lower transportation costs, greater accountability to customers and ease of doing business are some of the factors business owners cite as advantages of seeking out more local business-to-business transactions.

Awareness campaign

In its most recent annual survey of participants conducted last month, 20 business owners indicated they were able to shift some out-of-town purchases to local companies within the past 12 months, with their redirected local purchases totaling $8.5 million. (About 100 companies responded, but only 40 indicated whether they were able to shift purchases).

Before it began the campaign, the Partnership conducted a study of sales leakages that estimated Greater Des Moines businesses spent $7.2 billion annually on goods or services from suppliers outside of the metro area. Shifting just 5 percent of those purchases would result in a $362 million annual boost to the local economy, officials said.

Because the Partnership relies on self-reporting by companies, it’s difficult to assess whether the program is actually reaching that goal, said Mary Bontrager, the Partnership’s executive vice president.

“The mission of Buy into the Circle was really an awareness campaign, to show people the potential of what could happen if they did this,” she said. “So it’s a goal we’d certainly love to see attained, but the campaign was all about making people aware of the possibility and the impact they had control over by simply shifting dollars back into the local economy.”

Passing business on to local companies can take many forms. In one instance, Hanser & Associates was planning an event in New York’s Times Square for one of its clients, Coach USA. The public relations firm needed 100 official National Football League footballs for a celebrity guest, retired New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, to sign.

“We could have purchased the footballs from several suppliers in the United States, but we chose to buy local from Clive-based Superior Printing and Promotions to keep the money in Central Iowa,” said Ron Hanser, the company’s president. The $6,000 spent for the footballs was just a small part of the purchases the company has made from Superior in recent years, Hanser said.

Dave Carlson, Superior’s president and owner, said that maintaining contact with local companies creates the relationships that make Buy into the Circle work.

“There are a number of people who purchase from us as a result of the chamber ribbon cuttings, business after hours and other events that we attend,” he said. “With the (product) finishing, it’s much handier to have it done locally and deliver it yourself to the customer, so you can see what the end product looks like.”

Carlson said he learned about several local companies, among them Pyrographics, a West Des Moines design company that imprints ceramic and glassware for Superior. “Coffee cups and wine glasses are very popular products,” he said. “Before I knew about Pyrographics, 100 percent of that was purchased out of town.”

Iowa State University economist David Swenson, who assisted the Partnership in preparing the initial leakage estimates, is now working to provide an updated assessment of the program’s economic impact. He has conducted about a dozen economic impact surveys for Iowa communities seeking to establish buy-local programs over the past five years.

These programs require leadership, promotion and active engagement by the businesses to work, he said.

“I tell them it’s not worth anything if you don’t carry it through,” he said. “That’s what distinguished Des Moines right off the bat, the follow-through of business leaders acting on the program. It’s a two-part thing: measuring the potential impact, and then the performance side.”

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