There are so many reasons to buy from small, locally-owned retailers that the feel-good of supporting businesses owned by friends and neighbors is almost an afterthought. Shopping small is a way to bypass this year’s biggest holiday shopping obstacle: Supply chain and shipping issues. Not to mention the dollars you spend here keep turning over […]
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There are so many reasons to buy from small, locally-owned retailers that the feel-good of supporting businesses owned by friends and neighbors is almost an afterthought. Shopping small is a way to bypass this year’s biggest holiday shopping obstacle: Supply chain and shipping issues. Not to mention the dollars you spend here keep turning over in the local economy.
Several Corridor organizations are touting these benefits by supporting and marketing local businesses year-round. They ramp up awareness campaigns and incentives to make it even easier to shop local businesses during the holidays. Some of this year’s programs in the Corridor include:
- Think Iowa City – Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau’s countywide “JOCO SHOP LOCAL” digital gift card
- Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance’s “Buy. Give. Grow.”
- Iowa City Downtown District’s Gift Card, Kids Holiday Shopping Market and Holiday Market
The pandemic forced retailers to pivot quickly to reach out to customers. They refreshed their websites and got on social media, offering private shopping appointments and local delivery. And many succeeded, said Betsy Potter, director of operations at Iowa City Downtown District.
“And now, during the 2021 shopping season, what we’re seeing is people are out. They’re out shopping. They’re starting their Christmas or their holiday shopping a little bit earlier. I don’t know if it’s like full-blown yet, but all of our retailers are preparing for it,” Ms. Potter said.
Shopping patterns are changing, and Ms. Potter said that’s for the better. People aren’t just thinking about big online sites such as Amazon for this year’s holiday gifts. Rather than wait for a gift to arrive, shoppers are more comfortable walking into a local store to pick up a product. But for shoppers who still want an online option, Downtown Iowa City offers its online holiday market with products from local retailers ready for delivery or shipping.
“We live in a world of convenience where we’re getting to the point we don’t even want to pay for shipping,” said Stacey Houseman, executive assistant & special projects manager at Think Iowa City. “We get spoiled.”
To survive, local retailers must develop digital and online options for getting merchandise sent anywhere in the country. And that’s good news for shoppers. Ms. Houseman cited Revival in downtown Iowa City as an example of a Corridor retailer that expanded its online presence.
“Revival pivoted in the COVID-19 pandemic by increasing our presence on social media and by revamping our online store. We began offering free local delivery and no-contact pickup,” owner Sheila Davisson said. She buys, sells and trades men’s and women’s clothing and accessories.
Adding to pandemic pressures, in July 2020, Revival closed its brick-and-mortar Ped Mall location for historical renovation until this month.
“(Gift card programs) allow our business to get in front of new eyes and establish lasting relationships with people we may not have been able to without that exposure,” Ms. Davisson said.
Gift cards make up about 35% of holiday shopping budgets, Ms. Houseman said. Think Iowa City developed its JOCO SHOP LOCAL gift card to aid small businesses countywide in capturing those dollars without having to invest in tech and training to manage the program. Instead, business owners sign up and easily integrate the program into their point-of-sale systems, in-store or online.
“I would expect that by the time Christmas rolls around, and people really start redeeming these in January, that we’ll have a couple of hundred businesses listed on here as an option,” Ms. Houseman said.
Unlike the organization’s 2006 physical gift card program, the new digital version is emailed—no packing and shipping needed. For early shoppers, the buyer can choose the date on which the gift will be delivered. But because the card is emailed, it’s a great last-minute option, too.
To make the gift cards even more attractive to shoppers, MidWestOne Bank is making them fee-free for November and December. Recipients can keep track of the card balance online and choose one or several retailers at which to spend their gift cards.
A “fair amount” of the participating businesses are from downtown, said Betsy Potter, director of operations for the Iowa City Downtown District.
“They just understand programs like this because they’re so well versed in the program that we have,” Ms. Potter said.
Her district’s physical gift card is in its eighth year, now with 160 businesses, including many small, local retailers. Both gift card programs can work together. A shopper uses one card at a local retailer, then another at a nearby restaurant. All businesses benefit from the exposure.
Shopping local also means not waiting for packages or worrying about porch pirates, said Brooke Prouty, Uptown Marion Main Street District director. Small Business Saturday, traditionally the Saturday after Thanksgiving, is a big day for Marion’s small, locally-owned retailers. Many are banking on a strong fourth quarter, Ms. Prouty said. In Marion, small retailers are recovering from a triple whammy: COVID-19, derecho and road construction slated to end this month.
Buy. Give. Grow. is designed to heighten awareness about the need to buy and give locally during the holidays, said Julie Kraft, interim communications director with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. The 15 businesses highlighted in this year’s marketing are simply used as examples in marketing and messaging.
“We think this program this year is even more important than ever, given everything that our local businesses have gone through with a pandemic and derecho. Many of them are still recovering from that,” Ms. Kraft said.
Shopping with small local retailers is an excellent option to bypass shipping and supply chain issues, too. Ms. Kraft said the Alliance has heard about supply chain issues more from medium and large businesses than small retailers. However, she says that doesn’t mean that smaller retailers aren’t dealing with not getting in as many products as they usually do.
Small local stores may be less likely to have empty shelves right now. That’s because most source products from different suppliers than the big retailers. One of Ms. Kraft’s favorite things about shopping small and local is finding products she can’t get anywhere else.
“I always encourage people to think about buying at a local boutique or local store, because chances are you are going to find something unique and different that will probably make a much better present,” Ms. Kraft said.