Now more than ever, it’s important to shop local for the holiday season

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By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the nation’s economy—a sting that’s been particularly felt by small businesses.

“Across the country, so many small businesses are not surviving,” said Monica Tiffany, who owns McGregor Mercantile with husband Paul. While it’s always been important to shop local, its especially important now, during the pandemic and during the holiday season, she stressed.“Now, it will help all of us survive this year and thrive into the coming years.”

According to the research firm Civic Economics, an estimated 68 cents of every dollar spent in a local business stays in the community, supporting business owners and employees who are friends and neighbors. They’re often the first to donate to benefits or sponsor little league teams. That’s something Katie Ruff, the owner of By the Spoonful in McGregor, said you likely won’t see from big box stores or online retailers.

“Is Jeff Bezos going to donate?” she asked, mentioning the founder and CEO of Amazon.

Shopping local also makes downtowns more vibrant and visually appealing and supports the community’s tax base. 

“When you don’t shop local, municipalities suffer,” said Jen White, who owns the McGregor book store Paper Moon with her mother Louise. “It impacts first responders, schools. It helps the people who are going to be there for you.”

Monona Chamber and Economic Development Inc. (MCED), has quantified the impact a single holiday season can make through its annual Holiday Shop Hop promotion, where participants can get card punches for purchases they make at local businesses, then turn the cards in to win prizes. 

“It’s designed to entice holiday shoppers/patrons to spend their money at our chamber businesses—to get cash registers ringing more often and with larger sales,” said MCED Executive Director Rogeta Halvorson. “Qualifying customer purchases come from buying gifts, meals and everyday items like tires, oil changes, drug prescriptions, rec dues, computer repairs, groceries, gas, floor/wall coverings, etc. Basically anything—not just holiday stuff.”

In 2019, 766 punch cards were returned, for a combined retail purchase value of $94,614 in just one month’s time.

Josh Pope, who manages Norby’s Farm Fleet in Elkader and is also the city’s mayor, said the pandemic has shown people they can buy more items locally not just for the holidays, but year-round.

“I hear people come in and say ‘I didn’t even know you had that,’” he remarked. “We have the products they would go elsewhere for.”

Tiffany has also seen that at McGregor Mercantile.

“People have told me they’ve driven by so many times but never stopped,” she said. “They find things in town they didn’t expect.”

Those unique finds are often what makes shopping local so much fun, said White. You can’t find an item on Amazon if you didn’t know to look for it.

“You might not know you want a Dr. Fauci candle,” she joked, referencing one of the new items available at Paper Moon.

At G’s Closet in Elkader, which sells clothing and serves as a gallery for local artists, customers find one-of-a-kind pieces.

“It’s not like shopping at Home Goods,” said Sally Stendel, “where you go to your sister’s home and see the same thing hanging on the wall.”

“Plus,” she added, “you’re supporting artists, which is especially important when we didn’t have Art in the Park this year.”

Many local businesses sell items from other small businesses.

At By the Spoonful, said Ruff, all her products are American made.

“I try to focus on regional small businesses, then I’m supporting the footprint of people in the area,” she shared. “It’s a gift that keeps on giving.”

While many consumers rush to big box stores or online retailers hoping to save money, local business owners said buying items from them is often just as cost effective, especially when you remove drive time and shipping costs.

“I sell clothing and, here, you can try it on and feel it,” said Stendel at G’s Closet. “If you order online, sometimes the color or quality is not what you expected. Then you spend money to ship it back. Or you just keep it, so it’s a waste of money.”

Pope noted shopping locally is also a better experience.

“Items are easily exchanged,” he said of Norby’s, “and we pride ourselves in customer service. That’s something we can give that big box stores and Amazon can’t.”

“Even with masks on,” he joked, “we’re smiling with our eyes.”

For small business owners, customers often become friends. They get to know you.

“I like seeing customers and catching up with them,” stated Ruff. “I know what you like and your taste preferences. I’m so appreciative of your business, so I might throw in a gift or have you try a new product on me.”

“We’ll help you load things in the car or give a personalized note,” added Tiffany. “We want shopping here to be an experience, to make a personal connection.”

That willingness to go the extra mile makes small businesses a safe option for shopping during the pandemic. Owners and employees wear face coverings and encourage patrons to do the same. They’re also constantly cleaning surfaces and items and offer hand sanitizer. Many offer curbside pickup, ship items or even deliver them nearby.

McGregor Mercantile now allows customers to shop by appointment, assuring that, in addition to staff, they’re the only person in the store.

“We’ve already had people take advantage of it,” said Tiffany. “Someone said they hadn’t shopped since COVID started.”

Moving forward, she said the shop will continue to offer the option, creating an exclusive experience with one-on-one attention and more time to ask questions.

Coming up with these new ideas helps businesses stay viable.

“Paul said ‘sometimes when things get hard, you think outside the box and get more aggressive,’” Tiffany shared. “You step up.”

At Paper Moon, the Whites launched an online store at the start of the pandemic, to continue serving customers while keeping everyone safe. Friend and employee Shelly Milligan has volunteered countless hours to help fill the store, giving Louise and Jen more time to order products and fulfill shipments.

“It’s been a learning process. Order fulfillment isn’t easy,” White acknowledged. “It’s different than a brick and mortar store and people miss coming into the shop, but we’re still around for curbside pick-up. A lot of people have been very supportive.”

The goal is to make not only their business successful, but the community as well.

Stendel at G’s Closet agreed: “We’re here for ourselves, but also for them.”

“If you don’t want to see empty storefronts,” added Ruff, “change traditions. Spend money in your community.”

“Make sure these businesses stay here,” said Pope.

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