The 3/50 Project
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|Purpose||To reconnect consumers with locally owned, independent brick and mortar businesses|
|Headquarters||Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA|
The 3/50 Project is a pro-local-business brand designed by retail marketing consultant Cinda Baxter. By educating consumers about the impact of their spending habits, the Project's goal is to increase consumer spending in a way that delivers the greatest amount of financial benefit to local community economies.
During the Financial crisis of 2007–2010, small business owners saw pronounced shrinkage in consumer spending from quite early on, leading many to fear for their existence.
In March of that year, on the heels of a week filled with particularly dire media headlines, Minneapolis, Minnesota based Cinda Baxter wrote a blog post titled Save the Economy Three Stores at a Time in hopes of inspiring small business owners to unite under a single banner with the common goal of reigniting local consumer spending. One week later, she created a flyer that included the Project's message that could be reproduced on a desktop printer, again posting it on her blog.
Seven days after the site launched, more than 7,600 absolute unique visitors had landed there; by its first anniversary, AUV had exploded to 322,000 (with total visits climbing over 412,000), much of which is credited to overwhelming support from bloggers and Twitter users. The 3/50 Project Facebook page, launched on April 1, had more than 60,000 fans in under fifteen months.
During a pre-segment tease, anchors on Fox Business News referred to The 3/50 Project as the movement that "just might have the formula that could save some local businesses that might not otherwise survive the recession."
Sheer volume and growth of the Project quickly made it necessary to view the grass roots movement as a start up business in its own right. Entrepreneur Magazine editor Eve Gumpell wrote an August 17, 2009 follow up article about The 3/50 Project, during which Baxter spoke of plans for additional opt-in tiers of paid membership, including co-branding and organizational support for participants, as a way to provide financial support for the Project. To assure strong continued growth, corporate sponsorships would also be considered, avoiding a scenario where the bulk of revenue pressures would rest on the membership itself.
In response to frequent requests, three international versions of The 3/50 Project are in the works for Canada, the UK, and Australia.
The creation of Small Business Saturday
The summer of 2010, American Express OPEN courted The 3/50 Project in hopes of becoming a financial sponsor. During those discussions, in late October, AmEx pitched a concept called "Small Business Saturday," modeled on the Project and its message. Based on resulting financial assurances made by American Express, Baxter agreed to both their sponsorship of the Project and to be the national spokesperson for SBS in its inaugural year.
The first Small Business Saturday occurred on November 27, 2010, a scant twenty days after being announced to the public, following the national mid-term elections new cycle. The increased visibility and positive messaging that blanketed national media played a key role in the event's unprecedented success.
Unfortunately, a positive relationship did not continue between The 3/50 Project and American Express. After months of non-existent financial support, the Project removed the credit card company's logo from the website. Shortly thereafter, Baxter officially cut all ties with the corporate giant, also declining their renewed invitation to continue as national spokesperson for Small Business Saturday. Public announcement of the split was met with an immediate and strong show of support from independent merchants across the country, who had been skeptical of the financial institution's motives from the beginning.
Launch of the LookLocal mobile app
Continuing to forge new territory in the pro-local movement, the Project released a first-of-its-kind mobile app on August 9, 2011, connecting consumers with independent, locally owned brick and mortar merchants across the U.S. and Canada. Called LookLocal, it provides users with maps, descriptions, tap-to-call, tap-to-email, social media links, website links, and photos that showcase merchants who have signed on as Project Supporters. No fees are associated with use of the app, nor are merchants required to pay for inclusion.
The 3/50 Project's core message
The Project's tag line, Saving the Brick and Mortars Our Nation is Built On refers to its sole purpose—retention of locally owned, independent businesses, whose dollars provide a large portion of annual revenue critical to funding public resources and services.
Much of The 3/50 Project's success has been attributed to its simple, consumer-friendly message. Unlike traditional Buy Local campaigns, the Project speaks in what's been referred to as "dinner table language," avoiding technical terminology or mathematical equations.
- Consumers are asked to think of three businesses they would miss if they disappeared, then return to them, with a reminder that those transactions are what keeps the doors open.
- The number 50 ties to the fact that if just half the employed U.S. population dedicated $50 of their current monthly spending to locally owned independent businesses, more than $42.6 billion of revenue would be generated annually.
- The 3/50 Project message then explains that for every $100 spent in local, independent brick and mortar businesses, more than $68 returns to the local economy; when spent in a big box or chain, the amount drops to only $43. Spend it online, and unless you live in exactly the same community as the e-tailer, nothing comes home.
By focusing consumers on only three businesses and $50, the Project message was viewed as simple, personal and achievable—without being exclusionary, political, or protectionist.
What's an Independent?
The 3/50 Project focuses its efforts on "independent, locally owned, brick and mortar businesses," basing its definition of independent on guidelines shared by most Buy Local organizations, with additional points of clarification:
- The majority of the business’ ownership is private, by employees, the community, or an area cooperative, and is resident to the community in which it’s based
- The business operates out of a physical storefront or similar and is the only business residing at that specific doorway’s address (not a kiosk, home based business, etc.)
- The business relies solely on its unique name and reputation (i.e., does not “wear” a nationally or regionally recognized brand name)
- The business is registered only in its home state, and has no affiliation with an out of state headquarters or corporate office
- Full decision making function for the business is held by the local owner(s), including the name, signage, brand, appearance, purchasing, etc.
- The business is solely responsible for paying its own rent, marketing, and other expenses
- It has no more than six outlets, all of which are located in a single state, with a central base of operations in that state
- It is not a vendor (i.e., does not sell wholesale)
Franchises (see Franchising) and national/regional brand name businesses (see Chain Store) are excluded from the definition because of their access to competitive advantages not available to their true "independent" counterparts, including volume pricing, corporate headquarter support, and/or "the halo effect" that brings marketplace visibility each time the parent company advertises (nationally or regionally). Enterprises run as a home business are excluded from the Project entirely since they make no contribution to the commercial property tax base, opting instead to commit every dollar of profit to personal use (home, residential property tax, etc.).
That's not to say that chains, franchises, and other companies cannot or do not support The 3/50 Project. Breaking from traditional Buy Local models, the Project allows corporate entities outside the scope of "independent" to register as Supporters, aware that the failure of any brick and mortar business drags down the others that surround it.
As a catch phrase, “Buy Local” has become generic to the point of being easily manipulated. In some circles, “buy local” refers to the producer or manufacturer of goods. In others, however, the term is used interchangeably with “shop local,” which refers to point-of-purchase but excludes business models that are service-oriented. In 2009, numerous national chains (also known as “big-box stores”) began advertising themselves as “buy local” options if they sold even a small amount of produce grown nearby.
According to The 3/50 Project, more accurate terminology is necessary to clarify the difference in consumers’ minds. To accomplish that, the organization promotes two alternative options: Source Local as a way to define where products are grown/made; and Pro-Independent to define brick and mortar businesses of all types that are locally owned, with no outside corporate support (in name, buying programs, marketing or business advice, etc.). Doing so would alleviate misunderstandings about outside corporate influence while including businesses such as dry cleaners, salons, and restaurants that consumers don’t view as “shopping” options.
Additional characteristics of The 3/50 Project fall outside the norm when compared to traditional Buy Local campaigns, in great part because it began as a grass roots movement without a business plan, financial support, or a formal organization behind it. Other elements unique to the Project are:
- A message of balance — including acceptance of "big box" and chain store transactions — that avoids traditional protectionist limitations common to Buy Local campaigns
- A lack of negative language or technical economic terminology
- An expansive selection of free marketing materials, including the flyer originally posted on the founder's blog; window banners and countertop signage; a digital version of the flyer for use in blogs, websites, and newsletters; and media-ready files for print, radio, and movie theater use
- Free listings on the Project website for supporting businesses and free reciprocal links to their own websites
The inclusion of virtually every type of independent, locally owned, brick and mortar business has frequently been credited for its universal popularity as well as the dedication and enthusiasm of its supporters.
- Always Upward: The Blog, "Save the Economy Three Stores at a Time" :
- The Wall Street Journal, "Local Efforts to Save Main Street Bring in Traffic" ""
- Entrepreneur, "Plea to Shop Locally Creates Friendly Viral Monster" ""
- Consumer Reports, "Buzzword: The 3/50 Project" ""
- CNN and HLN, "Small Shops Band Together" ""
- The Washington Post, "Shops Selling a Cause: Their Survival" ""
- Fox Business News, "Why to Buy Local Three Times a Month" ""
- Entrepreneur, “Friendly Viral Monster Needs to Earn a Paycheck”
- Always Upward: The Blog, "Why The 3/50 Project broke up with American Express"
- Employment statistics courtesy U.S. Labor Department 2/6/09 report
- Civic Economics 2008 study, Chicago IL