Austin residents responded enthusiastically to a call by independent retailers to shop exclusively at locally owned businesses on Saturday, November 15. The one-day event, called Austin Unchained, was organized by the Austin Independent Business Alliance (AIBA) and was promoted through posters, tee-shirts, and flyers distributed throughout the city.
“On November 15, break the chain habit. Shop locally owned. . . By choosing to shop locally owned for just one day, we can contribute $14 million to our local economy,” the posters read, referencing a Civic Economics study that found that the event would benefit Austin’s economy, because, compared to chains, local retailers buy more goods and services locally.
“It was a huge success on many levels,” according to Rebecca Melancon, AIBA co-founder and publisher of The Good Life magazine. The event was covered by four television stations, eight radio stations, and all the major print media in Austin.
It catapulted AIBA to new level of visibility and standing within the community. “We’ve been contacted consistently by the media ever since,” said Melancon. At first, reporters were doing follow-up to Austin Unchained, but now they routinely solicit AIBA’s perspective on a variety of issues not directly related to its mission.
“Just this morning a reporter called to ask how we felt about the new overtime pay regulations,” said Melancon. “That to me is exciting, because we’ve gotten the news media to recognize that the viewpoint of independent businesses is important.”
Many AIBA members reported being especially busy in the two weeks following the event, and said that more of their customers asked if they were locally owned. Hits on AIBA’s web site nearly tripled to 8,000 a day.
The event also helped further AIBA’s local policy goals. The group has urged city officials to offer more to support locally owned businesses and to more thoroughly scrutinize chain retail proposals. “We’re not saying that there’s no place for national chains,” said Melancon. “But one side should not exist at the complete extinction of the other.”
In response to pressure from AIBA and a coalition of community and environmental groups, the city of Austin has commissioned a study on the economic and environmental impacts of big box stores. The city appointed members of AIBA to a committee overseeing the scope of the study, which is being conducted by Texas Perspectives and should be released in about two months.
Perhaps most important, Austin Unchained has energized AIBA’s members and attracted new businesses. The group had record turnout at its most recent monthly meeting. Fifteen new businesses have joined since November, bringing AIBA’s total membership to 240.
AIBA has several initiatives planned for the coming year. In response to growing interest from citizens who want to get involved, AIBA will be expanding its web site to allow people to sign-on as supporters of the organization. They will receive a monthly email update with news and coupons for different AIBA member businesses that they can print-out at home.
Also in the works is a newspaper ad campaign that will convey AIBA’s core message and draw people to the group’s web site. This in turn will expand membership, Melancon believes, as business owners join to gain visibility on AIBA’s web site and offer coupons to an expanding market segment actively seeking out independent businesses.
AIBA is a member of the American Independent Business Alliance, a national network of independent business alliances with affiliates in several cities.