For many participants at the recent Island Small Business Forum, the answer boiled down to two words: customer loyalty. There is increasing unease among many island business owners as more business goes to off-island retailers, contractors and Internet sites. “I don’t think there was more customer loyalty in the past,” said Vinalhaven business owner Phil Crossman, “it’s just that there was no other choice.”

The forum was organized by the Island Institute, the Sunrise County Economic Council and the Small Business Development Center of Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI) and took place in Rockland on Feb. 8. The day-long meeting brought together more than 40 business owners from islands along the Maine coast, as well as representatives of state and regional agencies and organizations that provide small business assistance.

The idea for the forum came from Vinalhaven resident and former Island Institute trustee Bob Candage, who saw a need for business owners from all of Maine’s island communities to have an opportunity to network, share challenges and success stories, and explore opportunities for improving their businesses.

As Dianne Tilton of Sunrise County Economic Council put it, “mobility has changed everything for small businesses.” Over the past several decades, increasingly convenient transportation and the rise of “big-box” retailers have meant that islanders do more shopping on the mainland. As a result, island small businesses compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

“You can think of your local economy as a leaky bucket,” Tilton says of the trend toward globalization. “If you want to keep the bucket full, you either have to pour in more water by bringing in new business or start plugging some of the leaks.” Since local stores and contractors also tend to hire local employees, purchasing goods within the local economy is one way to plug leaks. “In most cases,” Tilton said, “it’s easier to plug leaks and keep what you’ve already got. A `buy-local’ focus can help both existing and new businesses.”

Interestingly, lessons on how to plug leaks in island economies can also be found locally. Many participants at the forum noted a trend for summer residents to do more shopping on-island even when that means waiting for special orders. Commenting on this trend, Bob Candage noted that one reason they are less likely to make shopping trips to Rockland is that “summer people value their time on the island.” Coming from places where big-box shopping is the only option, interacting with small businesses can be a key ingredient in “the island experience,” he said.

The lesson here is that island small businesses create value by virtue of being local and small. As Candage noted, year-round residents also value these attributes of island small business. Tilton suggested that education and involving youth in community life are good ways to increase awareness of the value of locally owned small businesses.

Island businesses can also learn lessons from their mainland counterparts. If island residents value “off-island shopping experiences,” perhaps island small businesses can find ways to incorporate elements of those experiences. “Convenience is increasingly important to shoppers,” said Tilton, “and shopping locally can save time. Businesses — any businesses — only succeed if they respond to consumer demands,” she added. What other lessons can island small business take from the page of mainland big business? That depends on the business.

There are many resources to help island small business owners answer that question, and representatives of several agencies that provide low-cost or free services to small businesses were on hand at the forum to answer questions and provide resource materials. These included the Maine Small Business Development Centers, Maine Cooperative Extension, and Women, Work and Community (which offers services not just to women, but to all small businesses and start-up ventures).

“Small businesses are vital to island communities,” said Philip Conkling, president of the Island Institute. “From groceries and hardware to lobster pots and fuel, small businesses provide the services that island communities depend on. We’re excited to be part of the conversation on how to help keep island small business thriving.”

Jeremy Gabrielson is an Island Institute Fellow in Washington County. He helped organize the forum.