Opinion

Thriving small businesses keep Vashon healthy

By JAY BECKER

How businesses compete successfully with mainland big box stores is what Michael Schuman writes about in “The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition.”

Shuman, an economist and co-founder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, offers examples of how locally owned small businesses, like many on Vashon, successfully survive and thrive. In doing this they kept their local business districts healthy, as they offered services, products, jobs and more local donations than chain stores.

His basic formula is the proven find-and-fill-a-need. He offers insights, case studies and economic statistics on how this is being done as well as why this is important to small communities like ours. He also discusses how to determine the businesses you might start in your own small town without spending a lot of research money.

According to the per-capita spending Shuman’s research shows, Islanders likely spend more than $7 million a year on clothing and shoes, more than $1 million on computers and software and more than $5.4 million on 27 sub-categories of home furnishings. That’s a lot of money that could be circulating on Vashon before going off-Island to pay manufacturers, wholesalers and stockholders of remote companies.

In traveling the byways of some 500 small towns in North America, my wife Joan and I have noticed more and more thriving towns in all regions. Obviously successful, they offer alternatives to the Wal-Marts of the world.

Too many of the books and articles that lament fading small towns losing mom-and-pop businesses lack solutions. Schuman backs his arguments with statistical evidence from governmental sources as well as anecdotes of successes and uncertain futures. Bucksport, Maine, is a success. In our visit it looked it. Millinocket, another Maine town, has an uncertain future. The huge paper mill is gone, but surrounding second growth forests are lush. The signs of a nascent town resurgence a decade later are there.

In the shadow of megalopolis, locally owned businesses across America are finding out how to thrive. Our trips offer visual evidence. Ever-larger retail operations, farms and manufacturers are not an inevitable alternative to locally owned farms, businesses and manufacturers, he says.

His cascade of facts demonstrates that when small businesses thrive the result is a better community.

Many towns are coming back partly be-cause small operators can be more efficient than big ones, can often offer a better range of rewards and are eager to give personal service. Small community banks are thriving and their numbers growing, for example.

On Vashon, locally owned stores such as True Value, Thriftway, Island Lumber, Harbor Mercantile and others are other examples. The local list could go on.

Shuman does not suggest the Sandy Matteras of the world (she owns Harbor Mercantile) take on the Wal-Marts head-to-head. Instead fill a local market niche in a way that suits the community, he says. The Burton store does that. According to Sandy, it is a place “the kids can walk in and be treated like adults. It’s more a way of life than just a business.” She knows everyone’s name.

Checklists of things one can do follow many of the chapters in this heavily footnoted book. The checklist for the chapter on community building, for instance, tells how to determine how much money is “leaking” out of the community. Using his equation, I estimated the size of Islanders’ current retail spending in 21 categories. We used to be able to buy large appliances here, for example. Now the more than $800,000 we spend annually for major appliances is spent off the Island.

Between 18 to 20 percent an average town’s consumer spending is “leaked,” according to Shuman. King County’s study of our likely unmet retail space “needs” that preceded the present town plan suggested that leakage could be 40 to 90 percent, depending on market conditions.

“(The) small mart revolution is not about spending more on any goods or services,” Shuman emphasizes. It’s simply about shopping thoughtfully and weighing quality, price and value in your local community before spending elsewhere.

Islanders interested in sustaining Vashon town can gain from reading “The Small Mart Revolution.” Librarian Hester Kremer says it will soon be available at the Vashon library.

— Jay Becker, a businessman, is the former owner of The Beachcomber.

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