Retailers hope to breathe new life into Michigan's economy by identifying locally produced items throughout the store
Community Tea House owner Alice Gambee demonstrates how to steep loose tea, single mom Polly Levy-Carpentar distributes samples of her homemade cakes, and Elaine Wyatt and Paula Kauffman share B'Drizzled popcorn created from a family recipe for popcorn hand-drizzled with two types of chocolate.
Though these entrepreneurs have a home state in common, their efforts aren't part of a community bazaar. Instead, they hawk wares with other Michigan-based suppliers at Michigan Food Fairs hosted by Hiller's Markets.
Hiller's is a seven-store family-owned chain with a history of supporting local businesses. So as Michigan entered its sixth consecutive year of recession, the Commerce Township-based retailer decided to give its local suppliers a boost by allowing them to demo products as part of the fairs.
The first of four was hosted during a weekend in March at Hiller's Union Lake store. Thirty-five vendors whose businesses are either wholly or partly operated in Michigan interacted with shoppers during the events.
The fairs are a success since Hiller's shoppers are eager to help fellow Michiganders who are in a tough economic spot, just like them.
“Consumers coming through the doors are absolutely thrilled to be made aware of these products,” Hiller's spokeswoman Lynne Schreiber told SN.
Hiller's makes supporting the state's economy easy even when the fairs aren't going on. Shoppers simply look for the green Made in Michigan shelf tag to identify items produced in the state. The retailer is hopeful its efforts will help bring jobs to its neighbors and new life to the local economy.
“Every state in the nation is under duress, but Michigan more so because of the automotive industry,” Schreiber said.
Indeed, the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that Michigan still leads the nation in unemployment with a whopping 15.3% jobless rate.
But it's not just the Great Lakes State's automotive industry that's taken a hit. Furniture building, tourism, construction and other industries on which it's traditionally hung its hat also continue to struggle.
Though it's not likely that residents have the resources to make a dent in these industries, there is something they can do to help revitalize the state. That's because they've all got to eat. Fortunately, many of the foods available to them also happen to be home-grown.
Producing over 200 commodities, Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the U.S. So diverse, in fact, that its agricultural and food industries employ nearly 25% of the state's 4-million-member workforce, according to the Michigan Commission of Agriculture.
Drumming up additional support for these industries makes perfect sense, according to Lisa Diggs, founder of a grass-roots effort called Buy Michigan Now, since they represent bright spots in an otherwise dismal picture. Michigan's food and agricultural sectors have grown from $55 billion in 1997 to $71.3 billion today.
“If you look at the quickest ways to rebound, you look to industries that you know you can grow,” Diggs said. “We don't have to start with something new, we've just got to get more people buying the great [food] products that are already available.”
If more residents would shift just a portion of their food dollars to Michigan products, they could make a significant impact.
In fact, it would only take $10 from every Michigan household's weekly budget to put $37 million a week into the state's economy, according to Diggs.
Supermarkets have done a good job of helping shoppers identify fruits and vegetables that are sourced locally. But limited space and little knowledge about the origins of ingredients used to make shelf-stable items make supporting local vendors of Center Store items a challenge.
To help raise awareness of the Michigan food options available throughout the store, Diggs spent 30 hours examining grocery labels to determine which items are Michigan made. She placed follow-up calls to verify the information, and relied on company names provided by Hiller's to grow her list.
Diggs compiled the information in a Grocery Guide that can be downloaded at buymichigannow.com, a site dedicated to building a diverse Michigan economy.
Kellogg's in Battle Creek, Coffee Beanery, Flushing, and Founders Brewing Co., Grand Rapids, are all on the list.
Diggs contends that if Michigan consumers purchase products from companies like these, it will help:
Maintain jobs so residents can stay in the state.
Diversify Michigan's economic portfolio so it can thrive if another of its industries comes to a halt.
Attract new employers and new jobs.
Increase the tax base.
Reduce the carbon footprint because less fuel is used to move the merchandise.
To get the wheels rolling, Diggs has included a pledge function on buymichigannow.com so consumers can state their commitment to Michigan products, and even send the pledge form to a friend. A counter updated in real time lets business owners know about the thousands of shoppers looking for these products.
“If consumers are making that part of their buying criteria, then naturally retailers are getting on board with ways to make buying easier,” Diggs said.
Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, is among the retailers who have launched a buy Michigan campaign.
As part of an effort that coincided with statewide “Buy Michigan Week” running July 27-Aug. 2, it began highlighting Spartan-brand coffee, Comstock pie filling, Jiffy Baking Mix and close to 2,400 other products that are either grown or produced in the state. Spartan's 99 D&W Fresh Market, Family Fare, Felpausch, Glen's, Glen's Fresh Market and VG's banner stores participate in its “Michigan's Best” campaign.
The effort was Spartan's first to extend throughout the store. A Web component also brought its efforts online. Visitors can identify and build grocery lists with items grown or produced in Michigan.
Diggs said that supermarkets like Spartan not only use the list as a springboard for their own locally sourced product campaigns, but they're also treating it as a buyer's guide to help drive sourcing decisions.
“We know of stores and restaurants that are now sourcing new products that they didn't know about before,” she said.
Shoppers are also printing the Grocery Guide and bringing it with them to stores that don't highlight local grocery items.
The lists are especially handy for former Michigan residents who've had to move elsewhere for employment. Since a supermarket in Texas isn't likely to highlight Michigan foods, it helps them navigate the store.
“It's not only a way to give them a taste of home,” said Diggs. “It's also a way to give them hope for a brighter future so they can come back.”
The paper lists will soon be unnecessary for some thanks to a Michigan Grocery Guide iPhone application due for release in January. It will present to subscribers a generic supermarket layout. To find a list of Michigan options in a specific category, the user simply touches the area in the layout from which the category is traditionally merchandised.
Product manufacturers are also helping Michigan retailers identify their products as Michigan made, since doing so is too labor intensive for some, noted Chris Autterson, spokesman for Michigan Tape, a Plymouth-based company that sells Made in Michigan stickers that are affixed to products.
“Supermarkets really liked the concept but because of labor costs they couldn't apply stickers to every Michigan-made product in the store,” he said.
Manufacturers like Faygo and Better Made Snack Food Co., both Detroit-based, and Michaelene's Granola, Clarkston, apply the stickers to their products.
Although there is no way to pinpoint the exact progress that's been made toward having each resident shift $10 of their weekly food purchases to Michigan products, officials are pleased with the results.
“In 2009, consumer purchase preferences for Michigan-grown and/or -processed products have soared as a mega-trend as part of the buy local movement, and residents want to help Michigan in every way possible,” said the Michigan Commission on Agriculture in a report released earlier this month.
Helping to drive the effort has been the Select Michigan Program, the state's brand-identfication effort to promote sales of food grown, processed and manufactured there.
The Select Michigan Great Tastes seal has been another means for leading interested shoppers to Michigan products.
Processed items that have qualified for the seal have at least 51% of their contents grown in Michigan, or their final processing plant is in Michigan, and other than processing aids or spices none of their ingredients are sourced from outside of the U.S.
The program was so effective that after its first year in western Michigan, sales of Michigan fresh fruits and vegetables increased by an average of 111%, and by 10% to 20% each year after, according to the state agriculture commission.
Despite its success, the Select Michigan program was recently eliminated due to funding cuts. Kroger, Meijer and Save-a-Lot stores were among Select Michigan's retail partners.