How can I keep the local shops Merry and Bright?

I’ve been seeing headlines everywhere about who/what is open on Thanksgiving and what’s on sale on Black Friday.  I am not a shopper, and as someone who’s trying to cut back on stuff, retail shopping goes against every effort to purge stuff from my home and life.  However, like most of you, I have people on my holiday gift list.  That means I will be doing some shopping in the near future.  So, I thought I would take a moment to pause, reflect, and share a few tidbits on how I try and manage the holiday consumer mayhem while attempting to shop at small, independent stores, and buying American when possible.

First of all, give up the idea of “Black Friday” or “Small Business Saturday”.  Black Friday is a recent consumer driven phenomenon. It is not a holiday.  Some countries may have similar shopping days, but here in the States we have turned it into a frenzy of greed and unbelievable behaviors, that frankly, as an American, embarrass me.  According to Wikipedia, the only non-retail related site I could find when I Googled “Black Friday”, it was first labeled or identified some time in the late 70’s or early 80’s simply as the day that kicked off the holiday shopping season and the day when retailers’ income put them “in the black”.  It wasn’t until the 2000’s that we, as consumers, allowed it to get out of control and stores started opening their doors ridiculously early – now even on Thanksgiving.  And sadly, other countries are starting to jump on the bandwagon due to online companies offering Black Friday sales.

Then there’s Small Business Saturday.  As a small business owner, I struggle with this.  Why?  American Express created Small Business Saturday in 2010 (and as far as I can tell, it continues to help market/ fund it).  If you have been living in a cave, then you might not know just how large a corporation American Express is.  I have nothing against American Express, personally, and I think Small Business Saturday could be a great thing; but personally, I would be much more excited about the concept had it started as a grass roots, small, and locally funded organization type thing.  I cringe every time I see the Small Business Saturday logo, because it’s even Amex blue (you mean you never noticed that?).

See, here’s the thing, that really annoys me about Black Friday and Small Business Saturday:  most stores are open and run sales, ALL YEAR LONG!  The only thing special about Black Friday sales is that they are offered on Black Friday.  As for the idea of Small Business Saturday, small business can’t rely on one day of year of goodwill or flash mob shopping.  The greatest factor keeping small shops in business is a steady stream of customers ALL YEAR LONG!

Secondly, park your car.  You know traffic and parking at the mall is going to be aggravating, you will most likely have to walk a distance from your car to the mall, from store to store, and then back to your car carrying all your packages.  So why not go to Anytown America, park your car and stroll Main Street?

So many towns thrive on actual foot traffic, if you’re going to do all that walking, why not make it enjoyable?  Many small towns decorate for Christmas, have their own “Light Up Nights”, shopping excursions, Santas, bakeries, coffee shops, and Salvation Army Bell Ringers!  You could be missing out on your own “Rockwell Experience”.

There are many regional department stores that began as small family owned 5 & 10 type department stores.  Should your Anytown America or nearest large city still have a regional department store, shop there.  Many cities and towns are losing their regional department stores as people move their shopping habits to malls and the suburbs.  But like small independent stores, these regional chains are also a unique and valuable, and sadly, they are disappearing from the American city and town landscapes.

Should you live in or near a suburban area with strip malls, look around.  Again, park your car and walk through your strip mall – many of the shops and stores in these little shopping complexes are small mom & pop shops.  Shopping small doesn’t mean you need to find Main Street, it just means you may have to leave the mall with the “anchor” stores from time to time.  Shopping small means thinking outside of the big box store.

When you are shopping in small shops, talk to the shop keepers.  If you walk into a shop and think, “Sister would love this place.”, ask the shopkeeper for recommendations in your price range.  You’d be surprised what the small shops can come up with.  Just because they don’t have the buying power of the big box stores doesn’t mean the small shops don’t have strong relationships with their suppliers.  They may be able to place a special order, have something made just for you, customize something based on your preferences, or make a suggestion that you would have never considered.  Most small shops are owned by people with a passion for the items they sell.  That means they will offer a completely different level of customer service.  If it’s a specialty shop, the shopkeeper can answer your questions – which is especially handy if the specialty is not one in which you are well versed.

What do you do when that perfect gift for Dad is $28 and you only wanted to spend $25?  Weigh your options before you say no.  Realize that sometimes small shops can’t offer the deep discounts the box stores are able to offer.  (You’ve probably seen the articles and programs about slave labor, poor working conditions, child labor, etc., – often the true cost of the item at the big box stores is not always the price on the tag.)  Small shops often try to stock things that you can’t buy at the big box stores, know their suppliers, cater to the local market, and often (but not always) smaller shops offer higher quality products.  Independent retailers often only sell what they would use or recommend, which also means there is something about the slightly higher priced item, be it quality, utility, or function, that they view worth the extra expense.

One of the great things about shopping small is that the local shops are owned an operated by your neighbors.  Like you, they have busy schedules.  If you know Brother would love something from the little sporting goods store on Main Street, check their hours before you show up at 8 pm on a Sunday and can’t believe that they are closed!  Some shops offer special holiday hours, some don’t.  That doesn’t mean you need to plan ahead, it just means you need to be aware.  Many small shops operate with few, if any, employees.  Shop owners have the same obligations as you, they’re just trying to manage them around their shop schedule, and during the holidays, that can be difficult as they also try to accommodate shoppers.  It also means that they might be having events or specials throughout the holiday season, and the year.  Take the time to note these things and shop during their events.  Not only does it support the small shops, it just might make your experience more enjoyable too.  Many times in small towns, the shops coordinate events and sales – making it just as easy as shopping at the mall because you are able to shop at a variety of unique shops at one time.

The main court of Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. Wanamaker’s Department Store closed in the mid 1990’s. My Grands used to take us shopping here for special occasions, like Christmas and Easter.

All in all, my Christmas shopping happens the moment I see the perfect gift for someone, not on the day after Thanksgiving.  That leaves my Thanksgiving as a time to be thankful.  I hope that as your holiday season kicks into full swing next Thursday you’ll be able to separate your Thanksgiving from your gift giving and that as the season progresses you’ll be able to enjoy it, with out giving in completely to the consumer overspending holiday “spirit”.  Instead, get out there and make your own “Rockwell Experiences”.