EcDev Journal

Buy Local with Confidence: A Pandemic Toolkit for BIAs

Posted on Thursday October 01, 2020

By: Laura Burnham, Sebastian Contin, Lucia (Ming-Hsuan) Huang, Iana Lanceta, Lillian Phillip, Simran Sandhu, Frank Venditti;; 


This article investigates economic and consumer behavior trends in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. Information is gathered from secondary sources as well as domestic and international case studies to identify these trends and to form the basis of a “Buy Local with Confidence” toolkit that can be used by Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) to stimulate economic growth and activity during pandemic crises. Public recommendations to support BIA initiatives, as well as details on how to receive a copy of the full toolkit are included in the conclusion. 

Key Words: buy/shop local, consumer behavior, business improvement areas (BIAs), business improvement districts (BIDs), downtown, COVID-19, pandemic


The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are nearly unprecedented, and the pandemic itself has proved to be a catalyst for people around the globe to change the way they live and work. Businesses in downtown main streets have been highly impacted and have experienced significant drops in sales due to changes in consumer behaviour, shaken consumer confidence (for in-person shopping), and restrictive COVID-19 health measures. In this article, we explore how Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) can implement Buy Local campaigns that improve consumer confidence and facilitate the economic recovery of downtown main streets. 


Information from secondary sources was collected on economic and business data, federal responses to COVID-19, and consumer behaviour. Canadian and international case studies were also conducted in order to create the foundation for which the toolkit is based.

 Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Canadian Businesses

As with most of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the Canadian economy. Overall, the Canadian GDP experienced a sharp decline in the first months of the pandemic and between March and April 2020, the country experienced the biggest GDP contraction ever recorded in Canadian history. The majority of Canadian businesses have reported indelible losses, with 51.6% reported losses greater than a third of their expected revenue in the month of April (Statistics Canada, 2020a).  

It is estimated that about 10% of all businesses will not be able to recover and will be forced to permanently close towards the end of the pandemic (Bensadoun, 2020).  

Key COVID-19 Consumer Behaviours During the Pandemic

Canadian consumer confidence changed significantly from April to June of 2020. According to the Consumer Confidence Index, consumer confidence reached its lowest point in April. By June, consumer confidence increased to about half of what it was prior to COVID-19, and although Canadians felt more confident about the state of the future job market, they still showed concern about the current financial climate (Feng, 2020). 

Meanwhile, consumer behaviour has been shifting during the pandemic. These shifts are demonstrated in the greater use of e-commerce as well as in the changing patterns of in-store shopping experiences. Although some consumers will eventually return to their pre-pandemic behaviours, changes in consumer behaviour will continue to evolve. As such, an evolution must take place within the main street retail experience (PWC Canada, 2020). 

Several key consumer trends were identified that can spark such changes in main street retail, and which can also be used to create winning Buy Local marketing strategies. The top three of these trends are as follows (PWC Canada, 2020). 

  1. Increased interest among Generation Z consumers in experiential and/or service-based shopping; 
  2. An increased pool of work-from-home consumers; and
  3. An increased interest in purchasing sustainable and locally sourced products.  

Creating a Buy Local Campaign During COVID-19

During this challenging time, the Buy Local movement has gained more prominence and become a call to action for Canadians to support local main street businesses. The case study research conducted revealed a number of important trends for BIAs to consider in order to make their own Buy Local movement a reality. Firstly, creating “immersive” and “rich” interactive experiences across BIAs and local businesses is an effective way to reach younger consumers and help businesses stand out from even the largest online competitors. In addition, it is important to consider local demographic factors, business sector needs, and resources when formulating initiatives for incentivizing local shopping. Financial resources for Buy Local campaigns can be limited, so public and/or private partnerships may be more crucial. 

The presence and proper communication of health and safety measures have also proven to significantly impact consumer behaviors during these times and must be a central component to a Buy Local campaign. Finally, with potential threats of additional waves of COVID-19, it is important to focus on Buy Local campaigns and attraction factors that are more resistant to the constraints of a government-mandated lockdown. 

The Buy Local with Confidence Toolkit

Although the information gathered in the economic research and case studies were done in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Shop Local with Confidence Toolkit was created to support BIAs in protecting their businesses and to facilitate economic activity during any pandemic or time of extreme volatility.

Six Success Factors from the Buy Local with Confidence Toolkit

Through the case study research, the following six key success factors were identified as essential components of a strong and comprehensive Buy Local campaign.   Implementation and communication of health and safety measures;

1. Creative use of digital marketing;

2. Target audience planning to capitalize on niche markets; 

3. Facilitation of physical and emotional placemaking;

4. Creation of public-private partnerships; and 

5. Finding Buy Local messaging that resonates with one’s own community. 

Campaign Examples from the Buy Local with Confidence Toolkit 

Six sample project plans are also included in the toolkit as a source of creative inspiration for BIAs. 

  1. Awareness Campaign: Health and safety posters would be distributed amongst member businesses to display in their windows. These posters improve consumer confidence by clearly communicating health and safety measures the business employs.
  2. Mobile Store: A mobile store (a vehicle with product inventory) travels along routes with strategic stop points. This initiative creates a competitive delivery service option for member businesses while bringing a selection of main street shops to consumers who are eager to support local businesses, but hesitant to get through the door. 
  3. Interactive Games: A fun outdoor self-guided game such as a maze or word search could be tailored to each BIA with shop local or feel-good messaging that resonates with the community.
  4. Interactive Streets: This initiative combines technology and street art to promote specific health and safety measures. For example, if two persons stand two meters apart from one another on designated spots in a sidewalk, an art installation will light up to signal physical distancing is being practiced. 
  5. Community Avatar: A virtual avatar is created for the BIA to act as a social media “influencer” and is used to share the stories of local businesses from a unique and more personable perspective. For example, the avatar could represent a store owner’s family members and discuss their daily experiences in their family business and community.
  6. The World in One Stop: A tour of local businesses in a BIA who specialize in products from different countries helps encourage community members to partake in local tourism. A physical “passport”, portfolio webpage, or event “staycation” packages can be included in this initiative.  

How Governments Can Contribute to the Buy Local Movement During COVID-19:

The following recommendations highlight some key ways for local, provincial, and federal governments to support the Buy Local movement and improve consumer confidence in Canadian downtown main street areas: 

  • Provide businesses with the tools to facilitate a safe and healthy business environment by allocating funds/resources to basic protective and sanitation equipment.
  • Collaborate with local BIAs to better promote Buy Local marketing campaigns.
  • Implement a system whereby visual markers indicate that a business has met a certain standard of health and safety criteria. 
    • This system would be similar to the Toronto Dinesafe Program in which restaurants receive a notice to display that their business passed a COVID-19 measures inspection (City of Toronto, 2020). 
    • Alternatively, governments who wish to avoid the administrative costs of this system may facilitate a voluntary version of this program where businesses must apply for a badge that displays that they have undertaken specified health and safety measures. This voluntary program is similar to the New South Wales, Australia, COVID Safe program badges (City of Sydney News, 2020).
    • Form a new grant partnership program similar to the Innovative Street Pilot Project Fund in New Zealand to allow BIAs and their municipalities to quickly test and implement new, creative ideas that improve physical distancing and other COVID-19 health measures in downtown areas (Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, 2020)


The design and delivery of Buy Local campaigns continue to evolve throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. These campaigns can be enhanced by making use of key consumer behaviours, increasing consumer confidence, and employing the six success factors outlined in this article. Although the participation of governments to help boost consumer confidence and increase main street foot traffic cannot be understated, BIAs can begin to improve these areas through creative initiatives. The Buy Local with Confidence Toolkit was developed for this purpose so BIAs can create or adapt their own unique marketing campaigns. 


Works Cited

Bensadoun, E. 1 in 10 Canadian businesses may never recover from coronavirus, industry group says. 14 June 2020. 

City of Toronto. About DineSafe, 2020. 

City of Sydney News. Become a Covid-19 safe small business, 7 August 2020. 

Feng, A. (2020, June). Index of Consumer Confidence. Retrieved from 

PWC Canada. Canadian Consumer Insights 2020. 

Statistics Canada. Canadian Economic Dashboard and COVID-19. 2020a. 

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency. Case Studies, 2020.