Buy Athens: Bringing Life Back to the Local Economy

By: Aaron Conley

This is Athens Restaurant Week, when special menus and lower prices are driving diners into the downtown area.

It’s a project of the Chamber of Commerce, which is worried about a dwindling number of people shopping and eating downtown.

Leaders in the Athens-Clarke County government believe that the blame for this trend can be traced back to the increase of online shopping, as well as the pull of large malls in other towns.

In order to counteract this trend, a L.E.A.D. Athens group of the Chamber of Commerce developed a new marketing campaign known as Buy Athens.

The movement is designed to spread awareness about the benefits of shopping at locally owned businesses, and how the money spent there benefits the Athens community. The campaign also focuses on encouraging people to support local stores and restaurants.

The need for this campaign is more urgent in the digital age, officials say, with the increase of online shopping on websites like Amazon.

Statistics show that there are 191.1 million online buyers in the United States, a total equal to almost two thirds of the entire US population. In the past year, 80 percent of Americans made an online purchase.

On top of that, e-commerce sales for 2014 are estimated by Custora’s E-commerce Pulse at $304.1 billion dollars. In 2018, the total is expected to increase to $491.5 billion.

The issue of online shopping is especially pressing in a college town like Athens, where students dominate the market aged 18-22. That age bracket is much more inclined to shop online than their older counterparts.

Seventy-two percent of Millennials, the generation consisting of individuals born from the early 80s to the early 2000s, prefer to shop online than in stores. If they do go to stores, those young people often look at items online to compare the price, looking to find the cheapest option.

Online shopping does not bear sole responsibility for the strain on the Athens economy.

Even when patrons choose to shop at a physical store, officials say, many of them choose to do so outside of the local area.

Much of this can be blamed on the lack of a successful mall in Athens.

The only local mall, Georgia Square Mall, has never been a popular venue, and was recently ranked as one of the 10 worst malls in the state of Georgia by gafollowers.com. At the same time, Athens is only 50 miles from the Mall of Georgia, the largest mall in the southeastern United States.

Home to over 200 stores, the Mall of Georgia provides residents of northeast Georgia with a place to shop at large department stores, as well as smaller high-end shops that are not available in Athens.

For those reasons, L.E.A.D. Athens and the Chamber of Commerce developed the plans for Buy Athens.

Standing for leadership, education, awareness, development, L.E.A.D. Athens is dedicating to “developing effective leaders committed to building a vibrant community” in Athens. A campaign to support the local economy and downtown environment fits perfectly with its mission statement.

The campaign began with the 2014 holiday season when the Chamber of Commerce encouraged people to purchase gifts, holiday items and decorations, food and more from locally owned businesses.

“We love this city, its residents, and the community of business owners and their employees,” said Buy Athens on its Facebook page. “As the business community thrives, more revenue is available to the Unified Government to continue to improve on infrastructure, education and other projects that help make the City of Athens a great place to live, work and play.”

The effort has continued to grow in the months since.

Buy Athens has expanded on social media, utilizing both Facebook and Twitter to advertise for local businesses and spread the campaign’s message.

The campaign has also grown by adding many sponsorships from large local businesses that support its message, including: Wells Fargo, The Varsity, Georgia Power, and the Classic Center among others.

According to its website, Buy Athens also encourages shopping locally by providing stickers and posters to local stores and restaurants, so that consumers can more easily choose to actively support the Athens economy with every purchase.

The campaign also helped to plan and carry out Athens Restaurant Week, which started on March 22. The event is described as a weeklong celebration of the uniqueness of Athens cuisine that will help to promote and grow the local economy.

The Buy Athens website also emphasizes that for every $100 spent at a local small business, $68 stays in the community. The movement also emphasizes that supporting local businesses leads to vibrant streets, increasing property values.

Buy Athens does not support all local businesses unilaterally, however.

The campaign has put a major emphasis on supporting those small local businesses rather than franchises of chain stores, which may be locally owned as well.

Despite that, the Buy Athens campaign would rather that people shop at local branches of chains than online or out of town, as doing so only returns 43% of money spent to the community.

The campaign however, recognizes the benefit of shopping at local franchises of chains over online shopping, and still provides support to those businesses as well.

Buy Athens also promotes growth within the Athens economy, working to encourage new businesses to open, and advertising new local options on social media free of charge, with the goal of helping them to build a following.

Ultimately, the campaign has an end goal of strengthening the local Athens economy, and promoting a vibrant downtown atmosphere during the day, as well as late at night.

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