Clearly communicating the importance of the local economic multiplier effect or “local premium” is a key part of effective “buy local” and public education campaigns.

The multiplier results from the fact that independent locally-owned businesses recirculate a far greater percentage of revenue locally compared to absentee-owned businesses (or locally-owned franchises*). In other words, going local creates more local wealth and jobs.

The multiplier is comprised of three elements — the direct, indirect, and induced impacts.

The private research firm Civic Economics has executed the bulk of studies attempting to quantify the difference in local economic return between local independents and chain businesses. Their first such study (pdf), for the city of Austin, Texas showed an independent bookseller (Book People) and music seller (Waterloo Records) returned more than three times as much money to the local economy as a proposed Borders Books and Music outlet would.*

Those results since have been mirrored by subsequent studies (ten summarized here), each showing a much greater local multiplier for spending at independent businesses than chains. These studies measured the direct and indirect impacts to determine the base level local economic activity of a purchase made at a chain and a local independent business.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance conducted perhaps the simplest study of the local multiplier effect in several small Maine communities in 2003. The study examined how much of a dollar spent at a local independent store is re-spent in the local area as payroll, goods/services purchased from area businesses, profits spent locally by owners, and as donations to area charities. The study found each $100 spent at local independents generated $45 of secondary local spending, compared to $14 for a big-box chain — nearly identical to later results across the many Civic Economics studies.

Other studies by Civic Economics in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Chicago expanded exploration of the indirect impacts by including more business types (see discussion below) and added induced impacts, so the results are not directly comparable to most other CE studies or the ILSR Maine study. While the body of research in this realm is still small, we are unaware of any studies inconsistent with the results referenced above.

      Civic Economics’ Andersonville neighborhood (Chicago) study found a total impact (direct, indirect and induced) of $.68 for each dollar spent at ten local independents, compared to $.43 projected for their chain competitors. 

However, the projection of indirect and induced impacts does not mean $.68 of each dollar spent at a local independent “stays” in the local economy — an inaccurate claim that has been spread widely.

It means $.68 of additional local economic return ultimately is generated after additional spending cycles. Citing the higher numbers without explaining they include impacts by entities other than the original business is simply wrong and can undermine the credibility of your group or campaign.

      Bear in mind the Andersonville study examines just ten businesses in one neighborhood of one large city, so we discourage extrapolating its findings too broadly. Businesses in smaller cities and towns typically have less ability to source many goods and services locally.

      To gain respect as an authoritative voice within your community, we suggest you guard your credibility by checking your materials to ensure they convey verifiable, accurately-worded information and don’t rely on secondary sources. (One major U.S. newspaper reported that 80% of money spent with local independents was re-spent locally. At least two other outlets then wrongly attributed this claim to AMIBA, which is why we’re now zealous about correcting misinformation.)

In addition to being accurate, make sure your message is memorable.

Saying, “independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales than chain competitors,” is a far more memorable phrase than talking in terms of percentages or comparing $.68 to $.43. For restaurants, consider framing like “locally-owned independent restaurants return twice as much to our local economy than chain restaurants per dollar of revenue.”

Of course, you could add, “and buying remotely on the web creates almost no local benefit–just a few minutes’ work for a delivery person.” You also may add for your outreach materials or interviews, “That adds up to a huge difference in creating local jobs and local wealth.” Calculating the added local wealth that would be generated by a 10% shift to local independents is one tactic successfully employed by several communities.

Business Type

The size of the local premium varies depending on the type of business. Restaurants and service providers generate a large multiplier because they are labor-intensive and, therefore, more of each dollar of revenue goes to local payroll. Most retailers, unless they source an exceptionally high percentage of their goods locally, also create a more modest multiplier than restaurants.

This is not to say restaurants are better for economic development than retail. May retailers have sizable revenue and professional job opportunities, which are important to any local economy. It’s just helpful to be aware of these differences because the mix of businesses involved in a particular study will influence the results.

Land Use

In 2009, Stay Local!, an AMIBA affiliate in New Orleans, commissioned Civic Economics to evaluate economic return per square foot of retail space used by both local merchants and Target Corporation. The local merchants studied generated twice as much sales activity per square foot and nearly quadrupled the local economic return per square foot compared to projections for Target. See the resulting report: Thinking Outside the Box (pdf).

Quantifying Shifts in Spending

To gauge the overall impact on your local economy of shifting 10% of purchasing from non-local or absentee-owned to locally-owned businesses, you would need to know the local multiplier for each category of spending and the percentage of people’s spending in each category. (i.e., 20% goes to groceries and the grocery multiplier is 0.15; 5% goes to books and the local multiplier is 0.32; etc.)

Presumably, this is how Civic Economics arrived at the Grand Rapids figures for the impact of shifting 10% of all retail sales. The average local multiplier in that study works out to 0.16 across all retail categories.

Thanks to Civic Economics and Stacy Mitchell of ILSR for assistance with this content. ILSR summarizes and links many related studies on the impact of big box development. Note: AMIBA does not conduct these studies. Please contact Civic Economics for information about commissioning one for your community.

* The Austin Independent Business Alliance (one of AMIBA’s first affiliates) used the study results to rally opposition against a public subsidy planned by the City to attract a Borders Books and Music store. AIBA succeeded. Tellingly, the corporation chose not to compete on a level playing field against two well-run independents and Borders never opened. (We don’t know if the City sent AIBA a thank you note when Borders Inc. shut down a few years later.)

A Note on Franchises

Despite claims by countless franchisors (the companies that sell to a person wishing to operate a franchise — the franchisee), franchised businesses overall are no more likely to succeed than independent businesses and typically deliver a worse return on investment, (see the links at bottom of this page for documentation). The local multiplier effect of most franchises will fall between that of local independents and chain competitors in their business category.

Multiplier Effect Studies (all links are pdfs)

Independent We Stand/National Retail Hardware Assoc., spring, 2015. Specific to home improvement retail.

Monadnock Region, NH, fall 2014

Hudson Valley, NY, spring 2014

British Columbia 2013 (see p. 12)

Albuquerque, NM 2013