Don’t autopilot your holiday shopping

by Allison Chrien

Have you ever had a conversation like this?

“Hey, do you know what happened to that cute little [insert name of local gift shop, café, etc.] down the road? I drove that way yesterday and noticed it was gone.”

“Oh, yeah. I always wanted to stop in there but never got around to it. I remember hearing it closed, like, maybe six months or so ago…?”

“Shoot. I went in there once and it was awesome, you would have loved it! I kept meaning to see if you wanted to go. It’s a shame, that would’ve been a fun thing to do today. Dang. I wonder why it closed…? Anyway, want to go to our usual [insert name of chain store, restaurant, etc.] then?”

“Sure, that’s always good.”

Yep. Most of us have had a conversation like that at some point in our lives. 

And since you’re reading this in The Devil Strip, there’s a pretty good chance you’re already local-minded enough to know that one possible answer to the “what happened to…?” question lies within that very conversation, so anything I say on the matter from here on out will simply be preaching to the choir. But let’s assume that either you came across this article by chance, or that you’re looking for something timely and thought-provoking to share on your favorite social media outlet, and let’s just move along with the idea regardless.

At this time of year, we’re all so busy trying to do all of the things and see all of the people that we often try to condense everything into the bare minimum of places. And the chains are generally a safe bet, right? You can usually get in and find something that’ll work pretty easily for someone at such-and-such store. And it might be an hour wait at such-and-such restaurant, but it’s right down the road from that store and you know what you’re going to order anyway, so that’ll save some time, right?

I would like to offer you a counter-perspective. 

That cute little boutique you’ve been driving by and wanting to visit is more likely to have something handmade and perfectly kitschy for your great aunt Edna, who probably has more than enough of those slipper socks from the department store to hold her for a while. And you may not have the menu at that new restaurant down the road memorized, but since it’s owned by a local chef, the food is made in-house and not factory-frozen and shipped in — worth that extra few minutes of debating your options for how delicious it will be.

These places will help you give more unique gifts, increase your chances of having a more pleasant experience buying them, and also increase the chances of those places still being there for you to visit again in the future.

I mean, I get it. I really do. I’ve been there myself many times in the past. It’s so easy to just slip right into autopilot this time of year and hit a couple of big boxes to tear through the gift list before grabbing a $10.99 meal deal and calling it a day. Your niece might not like the sweater you picked for her, but you can always point out the gift receipt taped to the inside of the gift bag.

I’ve spent slightly more than a handful of years in a position to get to know a fair number of small business owners, and I’ve seen far too many of them struggle just to get people in the door. I’ve seen some of them struggle until they just can’t anymore — so I’ve also seen far too many of them close.

Over the course of about six months following each closing, I’ve personally been witness to far too many of those conversations playing out both online and in person.

In 2016, there was a survey of people in Copley Township in which an overwhelming number of people said the main things the historic Copley Circle area needed were more “cute shops” and maybe a “coffee shop or café.” But around that same time, several “cute shops” in the area either already had or were in the process of closing. And later on, it got a coffee shop… one that closed within about six or seven months.

Don’t get me wrong: There have been some really fantastic wins along the way, too. Some shops moved in and not only stayed but are continuing to grow, and a restaurant swiftly replaced the coffee shop. And of course, businesses are sometimes known to close for reasons other than foot traffic. Occasionally, owners have reasons like finding a location closer to home or changing the direction of the business or simply… life.

But still, the conversations I’ve witnessed cause me to suspect that some people out there haven’t fully grasped that supporting your community takes more than just liking that picture of the chalkboard sign extolling the virtues of supporting small business – you know, the sign about dance lessons and team jerseys and food on the table?

It takes changing habits. It takes maybe having to get out of the car for your post-shopping latte treat because the local shop couldn’t afford the construction of a drive-thru. Or maybe it takes a chance that you won’t have a gift receipt to tape inside the gift bag.

And you know what? That boutique might just let her return the sweater anyway, giving you both a good excuse to visit and explore a unique local treasure.

Supporting your small, local businesses is important to both the economy and the character of your community. They keep money local and they promote things like entrepreneurship, competition, innovation and product diversity. And local businesses are so much more likely to support local causes.

Oh, and here’s a pro tip for you: You have to support what you already have not only to keep it around, but also to give more prospective businesses a good reason to come in! 

Not to sound too preachy, my dear choir, but we all hold some responsibility for the success or failure of our small businesses. We get what we ask for, and the answer isn’t based on what we say but based on where we spend our money. Deep down, we all know what we need to do. We just have to remember to do it.

So avoid shopping on autopilot and take a beat to think about supporting small businesses this holiday season. Consider condensing your people-to-see and your things-to-do into those places that make your community special. 

You just might reap the benefits by still having the ability to visit those places again come spring.

Allison Chrien has long been a vocal advocate for community and small business, much to the consternation of her friends and family. She started her own small business, The Loop In Copley, as a constructive outlet for her promotional hobbies.

Photo at top: Zeber-Martell, a shop and gallery in the Northside. Shane Wynn via Akronstock.