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Posted on Sat, Apr 7, 2012 : 7 a.m.

Think local when it's time to shop for home improvement projects - you might be surprised

By Betsy de Parry


Steve Keith, manager of the Anderson Paint store on Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor, holds up cans of O'Leary and Anderson Paint Co. private label paint, both of which are made in Michigan and sold through the locally owned paint company.

Steve Pepple |

Spring has sprung, signaling the start of home improvement season. Whether we're sprucing up, repairing or adding on, it's a great time to think about the profound impact of our shopping habits.

And it is profound. Michigan State University examined the recirculation of money in Grand Rapids and concluded that $73 of every $100 spent at locally owned businesses stays in the community, while only $43 of every $100 stays when spent at non-locally owned businesses. Reports from regions around the country have reached similar conclusions.

Locally owned businesses can't begin to compete with the huge marketing budgets of big chains whose advertising would have us believe that they offer the lowest prices around. "But don't assume that the mass merchant really is going be less expensive," says John Fingerle, president of Fingerle Lumber, family owned and operated since 1931.

They weren't, as I discovered when I went shopping for a few hypothetical projects.

Nothing transforms a room like a fresh coat of paint, so I headed to Anderson Paint Co., family owned and operated since 1951. Manager Steve Keith thoroughly explained my choices, which included Anderson's private label paint that is manufactured by the family owned O'Leary Paint Company in Lansing. Wow — a Michigan made paint!

And the cost per gallon? $27.99, comparable to similar paints at big box stores that I later visited where, in contrast to Anderson Paint, no one bothered to ask if I needed help.

A new light fixture can also do wonders for a room, so I popped into Gross Electric and Top of the Lamp where the spectacular displays might have fooled me into thinking that I was in the wrong store if I'd strictly been shopping for the lowest price, but both stores carry fixtures in a wide price range (yes, even comparable to big box stores) and gladly work with all budgets. Both stores also carry American-made fixtures.

My next stop was Fingerle Lumber where the retail cost, including delivery, for materials to build a 10x12-foot pressure treated deck was $494.63. The same materials, including delivery, at big box stores ranged from $66.84 to $80.91 more.

An extra bonus at Fingerle was finding American-made nails, manufactured by Maze Nails.

Because my husband and I are in the homebuilding business and have worked with suppliers — local and non-local — for many years, we can say from experience that the prices for home improvement materials at locally owned businesses are generally equal to or less than big box stores, but experience has also taught us that the intangible benefits to shopping locally have value that can't be measured in dollars.

Local stores generally offer more choices and a variety of better quality materials or products which often outperform and outlast their cheaper counterparts, which can ultimately end up being more expensive because they have to be repaired or replaced sooner.

And if you need a part, local suppliers are better equipped to get them, not to mention that they go the extra mile to stand behind their products.

If, for example, you needed to replace a broken glass globe, Melissa Filter, manager of Top of the Lamp, tells me that she can generally get replacement parts and glass from their suppliers. You'd likely have to replace the whole fixture if it was purchased at a big box store. And replacing a globe is far less expensive than replacing a fixture, not to mention less of a hassle than removing the old and installing the new.

Mark Bishar, whose family has owned and operated Big George's since 1959, tells me that his company promotes American made appliances not just because they're made in America but also because any necessary parts that may be needed are much easier to get from domestic factories.

And while most think of Big George's as an appliance store, the company recently added mattresses to its product line, but not just any mattresses. Theirs are manufactured by Serta right down the road in Romulus. Mark says that you can order a mattress on Monday, it's made on Tuesday and delivered on Friday — which means your mattress doesn't sit in a warehouse collecting dust before you buy it and sleep on it.

Ah, but I digress.

Another benefit to consumers is the long term employment generally found at local businesses. Salespeople at Anderson Paint, for example, average 15 years at their stores while Fingerle's salespeople average 14 years — not counting years in the same business with previous employers.

Long-term employees have experience and knowledge that helps us get the right materials in the right amount, size or style which saves both time and money because we're neither returning to a store to pick up something we forgot nor are we making an additional trip to return wrong or unused materials — or simply wasting them.

And this brings me to the advice that salespeople at locally owned businesses readily dole out in generous proportions to help projects go smoother and faster and last longer. Says Anderson Paint's Tony Anderson, "As my dad has said for years, 'If we could sell all the advice we give, we could give all the paint away for free.'"

All that advice even helps pros like Eco House Coloring's Robin Grosshuesch, who has been painting professionally for years but says he relies on the help he readily gets when he runs into a challenging job. He says he's found that self service stores don't have that level of personalized service or knowledge, whereas the local stores — be it a paint store, a hardware store or a lumber yard — are "problem solvers."

Indeed they are. And so much more. With a vested interest in their communities, locally owned businesses contribute up to four times more to local charities and fundraisers than their non-locally owned counterparts, according to MSU's report. Both Tony Anderson and Mark Bishar made a point of telling me how proud they are to support local teams, clubs and organizations.

But a challenge moving forward, say local merchants, is getting the younger generation to understand that purchasing at locally owned stores not only benefits them but also the community. And it doesn't mean spending more. It simply means spending differently.

Memo to Millennials: Feel free to prove them wrong next time you have a project.

Don't misunderstand. National chains and online retailers have a place and they're here to stay. But if local businesses are to stay along side them, that's up to us every time we shop.

All this rah-rah for local businesses may sound like an old-fashioned, feel-good notion, but it's more than a notion. Our shopping habits matter mightily because the prosperity of communities depends on thriving local businesses.

And one more thing: If each of us bought American made products when possible, we could help create a wave of jobs across the country.

When projects beckon this spring and summer, they really can serve a dual purpose. Completed, they’ll give you something new and fresh to enjoy. And when you shop local for the materials you need, with an emphasis on American made products, you’ll have invested well in your community and country.

Betsy de Parry and her husband, Alex, own Ann Arbor Builders Inc., which is in the process of building a home constructed mostly of American made materials. Betsy de Parry is a regular online contributor to through her Candid Cancer column.


Red Floyd

Sun, Apr 8, 2012 : 2:11 p.m.

I went to Fingerle Lumber a LOT between 1998 and 2004, because I did construction/maintenance on campus while I was in college. Everything there is quality! I used to LOVE going to Fingerle! Also, Jack's Hardware (on Packard) has EVERYTHING and more, and the convenience of going there, versus driving all the way off campus to a big box store was priceless. Now, I live mere minutes from the big box stores, so the cost effectiveness of running there versus trekking across town to Fingerle (plus, I no longer have a truck) makes sense. However, you have to enter a big box store knowing what you need and where it's located, because it's very difficult to get help sometimes. I actually stopped going to the blue store during the winter because they cut back on cashiers, and I REFUSE to use the u-scans at those stores. They're awful and frustrating! Yeah...that's another thing... I HATE u-scans in general! Why do I have to ring-up and bag my own purchase? I should get a discount for that! The store is saving money by having me be a temporary employee for a few seconds. It's so irritating!


Sun, Apr 8, 2012 : 1:01 p.m.

If you want household items go to ACE. Anything but lumber go to Stadium. Try buying more than one plumbing fitting at ACE.

average joe

Sun, Apr 8, 2012 : 12:43 p.m.

Great article to remind us that just because the big box stores put themselves in front of us constantly through their advertising methods, there are other options.


Sun, Apr 8, 2012 : 11:53 a.m.

Great article and we all need to think Local, Buy Local. That will keep the community going. Thank you for putting this together.


Sat, Apr 7, 2012 : 10:40 p.m.

This is a pretty good article, but more examples would be that much more helpful to really get the message across. Like, try walking into Home Depot and telling a guy a problem hoping he'll help you fix it. I'm finishing my basement and have been in and out of ACE on Stadium, Stadium Hardware, Lowes in A2, Lowes on Carpenter and Home Depot on Carpenter several times a day on the weekends (unfortunately, haha) I watch all the prices and there are definitely things that are cheaper at ACE/Stadium, plus those guys are SO helpful when you have a problem. It's weird, but at Lowe's they'll have an "on special" sign, but the regular price is much cheaper at ACE (PVC pipe, for example is cheaper at ACE, go figure!) Unfortunately, there are just things that you must get at Lowe's/Home Depot because they don't carry them at ACE/Stadium (and then once you're at the big name store, why not pick up everything you need) I will say though, that at the big box stores there are only a COUPLE knowledgeable people in the whole entire store. There are a lot of people that will try to BS you too, which is SO frustrating. What's worse than asking someone who you KNOW doesn't know the answer, but will continue to talk instead of going to ask someone who might know ? Not a whole lot, especially when you're in a hurry. Down at ACE or Stadium those guys know their stuff and I will continue to buy from them because of how helpful they are. Knowledge is key and the big box stores run WAY short on it....


Sat, Apr 7, 2012 : 6:59 p.m.

Nice article, great businesses!

Ingrid Ault

Sat, Apr 7, 2012 : 5:12 p.m.

Thank you Betsy for a wonderful article that highlights what Think Local First does every day. The service is great, staff knowledgeable, and 80% of the time* the price is always lower at an independently owned business. Plus, the best part is the money stays and recirculated 2.5 times more in our community. Speak with your dollars, support local whenever you can, and help to assure our community remains unique and vibrant! Ingrid Ault, Executive Director of Think Local First * The Big Box Swindle by Stacy Mitchell


Sat, Apr 7, 2012 : 12:59 p.m.

Very good article. Personally, I would rather buy a paint that says O'leary than Anderson's Oleary is a recognized name. If the company that makes it is a selling point, they should just call it that and be done with it. But really, I suppose that is not that big a deal. I too have found the service at Anderson's, Stadium Hardware, Big Georges, Carpenter Brothers, and Fingerlies to be excellent. One advantage to FIngerlies that was not mentioned is that you can drive right up to pile of wood and load. This avoids that whole inconvenience with the cart at the big box store.

Red Floyd

Sun, Apr 8, 2012 : 2 p.m.

...that's after you spend 45 minutes walking around trying to FIND a cart at the big box store! :)


Sat, Apr 7, 2012 : 12:23 p.m.

Good thoughts. I try to use local stores when ever possible. Stadium Hardware is unmatched in their selection of goods and the staff is always helpful in finding the right material for any job. Big George's is as competitive as any of the big box stores. Their repair services use local folks as well!


Sat, Apr 7, 2012 : 11:33 a.m.

You can't find a better paint then O'Leary! Buy Michigan made products!