Doing business with a megaphone

Inkwell Modern Handmade Boutique & Letterpress Studio owner Andrea Rahal is a strong supporter and member of I Love Local.

I Love Local helps Halifax businesses share their customers and grow their market.
No one had any idea how successful last May’s Open City event would be. But when Chives Canadian Bistro manager George Davis arrived at work to see a line of hungry patrons that stretched a couple blocks down Barrington Street, he had an idea that it was going to be big. The event, which had restaurants serving food out of their back doors and stores discounting local products, created a festival-like atmosphere that drew swarms of people.
At Chives, Craig Flinn served bacon cheeseburger sliders in front of the restaurant. “We expected to have leftovers after the weekend,” Davis says. “We sold 500 on the first day.” Open City is one of many successful campaigns that I Love Local HFX, an association of local retailers and restaurants, has brought to Halifax over the last three years.
It began with a contest. It was a typical brisk February when Gordon Stevens, the entrepreneur behind a number of Halifax businesses including the ice-cream shop Sugah, Uncommon Grounds cafes and now-closed Carbonstok store, started looking for a way to encourage people to make Valentine’s Day purchases at Sugah. It was a challenge for Stevens because of the limited foot traffic around his Bishop’s Landing store.
He decided to put together a prize package. “It was okay, but it lacked some pizzazz,” he says. “It needed some jewellery, some dining, a room….” Stevens says he emailed six or seven other businesses and asked if they wanted to contribute to the package in exchange for the email addresses that would come out of the draw. All of the businesses contacted agreed to participate. According to Davis, this isn’t surprising. “When Gordon has an idea, it’s hard to say no because you know it’s going to be successful,” he says.
When the contest ended, business owners reviewed the email addresses that were collected. They were surprised to see that very few shoppers were patronizing more than one of the participating establishments. “It was really eye opening to see how little cross-pollination there was between the businesses,” says Stevens. “We decided to stop thinking of our neighbours as competition and start thinking of them as a way to support the community and make everything more successful.” From there, I Love Local HFX was born. The original members included The Trail Shop, Biscuit, Spirit Spa and Morris East.
With so much competition from online retailers and big-box companies, it’s a particularly challenging time for small businesses. According to Stevens, not only are many shoppers choosing to shop online to save money, some are actually visiting local businesses to find the right size before they place their online order. I Love Local HFX is striving not only to bring awareness to these issues, but also to revive Halifax’s sense of community. “Whether it’s about where you worked when you went to school, where your kids are going to work, or the non-profit that receives more support from local businesses than multi-nationals, we really need to think about the total cost of how we shop,” says Stevens “The total cost is not just the price tag, it’s the community.”
The stores and restaurants that make up I Love Local HFX have embraced that sense of community by incorporating it into the way they do business. Andrea Rahal, owner of Inkwell Modern Handmade Boutique & Letterpress Studio, often sends customers to Duly Noted for items that she doesn’t have. But she’s not losing business, because the staff at Duly Noted does the same for her. The same thing is happening among the city’s restaurants. “We’re always telling people about other great restaurants to eat at,” says Davis. “It’s like a group hug. I have a lot of love for Brooklyn Warehouse and Morris East.”
Many of the businesses are seeing results. Rahal was invited to join about six months after she opened her store. “I made my money back almost right away,” she says. “Lots of customers have heard of us through I Love Local.”
She also believes that the Shift 10 social-media campaign, which encouraged shoppers to shift 10 per cent of their holiday spending to local businesses, increased sales. “I had almost double the sales this year from last,” she says. Chives also saw a notable difference over the holidays, with more people requesting local wines for their Christmas parties, an increase in gift certificate sales and an extremely successful New Year’s Eve.
Stevens says members get out of it what they put into it. “We’re providing a megaphone,” he says. “What comes out of that megaphone is up to the business. All we can do is amplify it. But now, instead of talking only to their customers, they’re talking to a much broader audience.” Owners of independent stores and restaurants can purchase a membership to I Love Local HFX for between $300 and $500 a year, depending on the size of the business.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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