Thursday, October 30, 2008

Is Local Better?

We live in Mill Valley, CA, four miles north of San Francisco in Marin County. In our town, there’s a definite bias toward supporting local merchants and products. Smith & Hawken got its start here, and so did Banana Republic. At the holidays, even the parking meters take a vacation so shoppers can park free like they do at the mall up the highway. In terms of store names and ownership, Mill Valley commerce is diverse, and that adds to our town's character and personality.

But Ad Age got my attention when they reported yesterday that "it’s going to be a private label Christmas." Most private label merchandise is sold in chain stores – near us, that includes Safeway, Whole Foods, Molly Stone’s, Target, and Costco (no Wal-Mart nearby). In general, people buy private label goods because of the savings relative to branded goods. Consumers typically don’t know where private label products come from – part of their lower cost stems from avoiding the expense of telling the story of the individual products.

Based on its research, IRI predicts that big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco could be the big winners this holiday, possibly drawing shoppers from department and specialty stores by convincing consumers they can save enough on food to cross the aisle and shop for gifts, as well. Guess that makes the local specialty stores downtown more vulnerable than usual this holiday season, and the local grocery stores, too. Besides free parking, I’m guessing there will be more holiday festivities this year to draw people to the local shopping district.

But what does local really mean? Does it refer to the store’s ownership structure? Or its involvement in the community? Can a big box store be local? Is there a distance that defines what’s local? Is it the distance from the customer’s home to the store, or from the source of the products to the shelf, or both?

In the fresh food category, Wal-mart defines local as grown in the same state as it's sold. Whole Foods considers local to be anything produced within seven hours of one of its stores, and says that most of its local producers are within 200 miles of a store. For Seattle's PCC Natural Markets, local is anything from Washington, Oregon or southern British Columbia. Frankly, of the three, I think Whole Foods gets it closest to right.

According to a story this week by Julie Schmit for USA Today, “the ‘locally grown’ label is part of retailers' push to tap into consumer desires for fresh and safe products that support small, local farmers and help the environment because they're not trucked so far.” And for some consumers, being locally grown is now more important than being organic.

Farmers' markets are seen a source of local fresh produce, meats and cheeses, and they're on the increase. Last month UDSA reported that the number of farmers markets in the United States has nearly tripled over the past 15 years to 4,385. We have seven a week just in Southern Marin County.

USDA and others are careful to point out that locally grown food is not necessarily safer than food from farther away. But it seems consumers are not satisfied with government assurances about the safety of the food supply, and they like the greater ripeness that sourcing locally affords. In some respects, “Organic” and “Green” have become short-hand for “Safer” and "Better." Sounds like “Local” is the newest addition to that list of reassuring words.

Look for a push for standard definitions and certification of “locally grown,” and a move to track and report on the handling of fresh food from source to shelf as people increasingly think about what’s on their plate and how it got there.

And back in Mill Valley, I expect merchants large and small to continue trying to figure out how to capitalize on our passion for all things local.

No comments: