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Small business merchants say communities could do more to spread ‘buy local’ message

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Though small-business owners across the north country are getting a boost from “buy local” campaigns, some merchants say more could be done by community leaders to attract shoppers who bypass them in favor of big-box retailers.

Morrison’s Furniture at 230 Factory St. in Watertown, for example, doesn’t seem to benefit much from “buying local” initiatives led by the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce, said Cheryl E. Pastor, a third generation co-owner of the family-owned business with her brother, David A. Morrison. Their grandfather, Joseph J. Morrison, founded the business in 1921.

Mrs. Pastor said the business has a long-lasting following of local customers in the city, but it has been challenging to build that customer base by attracting new buyers who move into the area. The business, which has 23 employees, buys newspaper, television, radio and online advertising year-round to attract clientele.

“It has been a tough environment here during the past few years,” Mrs. Pastor said. “We’ve been a member of the chamber and Downtown Business Association in Watertown for years, and we consider ourselves as part of the downtown area. But it seems like the marketing is focused on Public Square rather than Factory Street.”

Finding ways to reach out to new residents who enter the community should become a focus of the chamber, Mrs. Pastor said. A handful of new apartment projects have broken ground recently within walking distance of the downtown district, she said. Examples include the Creek Wood Apartments off Mill Street on the city’s north side and the forthcoming construction of apartments at the Woolworth Building and the former Mercy Hospital site, which call for a combined 218 affordable units.

That infusion of residents into the city’s population could create an uptick in downtown shoppers, Mrs. Pastor said. But she said community leaders must find innovate ways to capture that crowd. Distributing promotional “welcome bags” to new residents at apartment complexes that introduce them to new businesses could be explored by the chamber, she said.

So far, recent chamber-led efforts to promote shopping locally haven’t translated into new customers at Morrison’s, she said.

“A lot of our first-time customers that come here learn about us word of mouth, and I haven’t heard anyone that has seen chamber advertisements,” Mrs. Pastor said. “People see our own ads on TV or on websites. I think the ‘buy local’ message is better now. The challenge is that people want a good price but also want quality customer service, and they don’t always go together.”

Downtown efforts

In downtown Watertown, the farmers market hosted by the chamber on Washington Street is one of its main avenues for promoting the “buy local” message, said Lynn M. Pietroski, chamber CEO and president. In addition, the chamber launched a weekly winter farmers market in January at the bottom of the former Stream building, 146 Arsenal St. At those markets, the chamber distributes advertisements and coupons on behalf of downtown merchants.

Chamber-led efforts to promote shopping local on Small Business Saturday, a national shopping event launched by American Express in 2010 to spotlight local businesses, have also reaped success, Mrs. Pietroski said. A free marketing campaign for businesses that participate by offering deals during the annual shopping day, in between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, has been hosted by the chamber. Online advertisements for the event are displayed on the chamber’s website and Facebook page. Last year, the chamber gave away about 75 American Express $25 gift cards as part of the event to promote local shopping.

Though the chamber is working on no immediate plans, Mrs. Pietroski said, it is actively exploring ways this year to strengthen its “buy local” advertising campaign.

“We’re in the process of researching that right now to step it up more,” she said. “There are organizations out there that have buy local campaigns, so we’re looking at what different cities and organizations are doing.”

Small-business owner Ben G. Primicias III, who has operated School Daze at 902 Arsenal St. for 17 years, said the establishment is not a member of the chamber or DBA. He said he believes the chamber could help the small business community by promoting the city as a whole, focusing on its unique assets.

“I don’t rely on the chamber here, because I think it’s up to an individual business to do what’s required to find that market that’s going to sustain it,” Mr. Primicias said. “But I think the chamber can promote how unique Watertown is as a destination. We can say that we have some of the most Italian restaurants in the state, and we have a lot of diverse restaurants, hotels and businesses.”

He added that customers at School Daze appreciate shopping locally because they can browse through children’s books and see educational materials firsthand — an experience that isn’t possible when shopping online.

Shoppers understand

Barbara J. Simmons, owner of Marguerite’s Cranberry Emporium on North State Street in Lowville, said customers are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of shopping local.

“When they shop local, their money stays local,” she said “If you support local business, you’re going to get more local businesses in the area.”

Ms. Simmons, who has operated her retail and gift shop in Lowville for 17 years and has been in business for 30 years, said she thinks people are becoming more cognizant of the benefits of shopping local, but she still gets some longtime area residents who come in and say they had never been in her store before.

Marketing her wares on Facebook has actually helped the cause, she said.

“I see them coming in and purchasing what they see online,” Ms. Simmons said.

Anne L. Merrill, executive director of the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce in Lowville, said the county has “so much to offer besides the big-box stores.”

The chamber tries constantly to promote shopping at local small businesses throughout the county in its monthly newsletter and its website, which features a business listing with links to individual websites, Mrs. Merrill said.

The St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce makes ongoing advertising efforts on TV, radio and the Internet to promote shopping local, particularly during the winter holiday season, Executive Director Patricia L. McKeown said. Also spreading that message is the chamber’s annual Craft, Food and Wine Show hosted in December at Clarkson University’s Cheel Arena in Potsdam

The county has “movements to extol the virtues of locally produced foods and goods, and the craft show brings in hundreds of vendors who create their own products,” Mrs. McKeown said. “Every year we have 5,000 people come through the door to buy homemade products. And that’s a lot of people who buy local when it’s available, but it’s only two days of the year.”

St. Lawrence County’s spacious, rural geography makes it challenging for a “buy local” message to resonate with residents, Ms. McKeown said. Though some shoppers may be conscious of the merits of shopping locally, they often are more concerned about getting all of their shopping done in one place or getting the best prices, and shopping locally doesn’t always meet those criteria, she said.

“It’s sometimes just not as convenient to hop from store to store to store when you live in a sprawling county like St. Lawrence, which is about 2,600 square miles and an hour-and-a-half drive to get from south to north and east to west,” Mrs. McKeown said. “When you’re talking about stop-and-go shopping at mom-and-pop stores, that’s a lot of distance to cover. Most people are practical here and aren’t wealthy, so they go where the price is cheap and where they can go once and be done with it.”

Johnson Newspapers writer Steve Virkler contributed to this report.

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