I had occasion earlier this month to attend meetings of locally- owned business, where the conversation was largely around how to boost their sales this holiday season, with a lace what it takes to encourage local patrons to patronize local merchants.
This can get pretty complicated pretty quickly. Having the experience myself of being a small business owner, I think I can speak with some real life perspective that it can be exhilarating, or it can suck. Locally owned retailers, which my business is not, face particularly tough challenges.
Here are a few that were discussed in the meetings I attended, primarily in the role of an observer (although I never can attend an event without offering up some ideas and opinions:)
1. Perception: Many locally owned retailers have competitive prices and superior service compared with Big Box and some of the chain stores at the Stanford Mall. And the selection is often more interesting. What concerns me is that the perception is the opposite, and many shoppers do not even consider walking University and California Avenues in Palo Alto, or Santa Cruz Ave. in Menlo Park. My suggestion: shoppers should re-think this perception, as they can get the merchandise they seek from a local business in many cases
2. Habit: there are different shopping events that everyone practices. Getting the weekly groceries is not the same as buying a little black dress. I live near the Whole Foods and the CVS Drug Store in downtown Palo Alto, neither of which is a locally owned business, although Whole Foods does make an effort to be community minded--it is part of their culture. For many things, they are my best choice for routine purchases.
But what about a new pair of sneakers or a pair of slacks? There are places that are locally owned that can sell such things to me. I confess that I need to get out of the notion of getting in and out of Stanford Shopping Center as quickly as I can, and think more carefully about locally owned retailers that can meet these same needs.
I will add that being a male, "shopping" is not my thing. I decide I need to buy something, I go to a store like Gap where I can get some new jeans, and get away as fast as I can.
So habit is difficult to change, but begins with all of us giving more thought to where we go to purchase items that may not be a weekly, but do come up for back to school, replacing a worn item of clothing, and other things that fit such a description.
3. There are numerous gifts that can come from local retailer and service providers that may be better than purchasing a product that may or may not really be appreciated. How about a spa package? A gift certificate for getting a car serviced or detailed by a local shop? Many others are possible. This idea was one that came up in one of the meetings I attended recently, and the person who suggested it is on to something.
4. Mine is not a bleeding heart: Big Box has its place, and several retailers who fit this category have achieved great success. There are many things that can be bought at a Big Box that are a great value. Having dealt with some of them in my company, I can say that they are ruthless with small business vendors in their requirements, not just on pricing, but on logistics, product availability. Some I simply chose to not engage. The level of effort involved to gain such distribution did not pencil out. Let Proctor and Gamble coordinate with WalMart, Kimberly-Clark sell bulk paper products to COSTCO, and Boise-Cascade sell its inferior line of wood products to Home Depot. Again, nothing wrong with this, and there are many shopping occasions where "French Discount Tarjay (Target)" makes sense.
5. Mine is not a bleeding heart, part 2: while my sentiments lean toward patronizing locally owned retailers when they can meet my need, I am not going to purchase something at a local company if it is off the mark for what I am seeking. Frequently, there are trade-offs on what to buy, no item from any retailer is 100% spot on. That's when I advocate a tilt toward our local merchants, as there are many benefits to having them here and keeping the money in the community as much as possible.
BOTTOM LINE? We all need to think outside the Big Box and consider unique and thoughtful gifts this holiday season which we can acquire from local proprietors. And going beyond this holiday and gift giving season, we need to modify more prosaic purchasing behavior and support as much as we can local companies that can satisfy our purchase needs, rather than just hit the chain store.
Please have a good holiday season, and thanks for thinking local as much as you can.