Shop for a meaningful gift this year

Published 11:09 pm Wednesday, December 8, 2010

If you are like most people, this time of year evokes strong emotions: delight over the festivities of the season and frustration with crowds, shortages and not enough time to get everything done. The holiday shopping season — while stressful for consumers — is critically important for merchants. Favorable sales on “Black Friday” can lift a lackluster year out of the red, and a boost in seasonal transactions can assure that a retailer stays in business for another year.

This year, while you are out shopping for family and friends, there is one gift to consider that will benefit everyone on your list and the community as a whole: Shop local. No matter what items are on your list — from jewelry to bikes and toys to books, computers and tools — you can likely buy them from a local retailer. In making a conscious decision to spend your money with local merchants, you support a unique hometown business and you protect the fabric of the community.

Large national retailers certainly offer a variety of goods at reasonable prices, and shopping for everything in a single store is convenient, but what if that option was the only one available? Who among us wants their shopping experience in Idaho or Texas or Wisconsin to be an exact duplicate of what they get here? What if you want something a little different or hope for customer service before, during and after the sale? What about those who want to enjoy and savor the shopping experience?

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That’s where local merchants excel. They know their customers, they live and work in the community and can stock products tailored to the wants and needs of their neighbors. Furthermore, their personal and professional reputations are integral to their business.

This time of year, consumers often lament that a store they had visited in the past is now out of business. The words, “I loved that store,” or “I can’t believe it’s gone,” quickly follow. Shoppers can help minimize this disappointment by examining their own shopping behaviors. It is unreasonable to expect the quaint little store down the block to remain viable if consumers spend most of their dollars at a big box store and only shop at the local merchant once a year or when they need special help or a unique product.

When all things are equal, studies indicate that local merchants — even if they are smaller or carry fewer items in inventory — give back more to the community, because the owners and their employees are a part of the community.

Their taxes stay here, their profits stay here, their commitment to arts, culture, education and charity are all tied directly to the business. As much as 68 percent of every dollar spent with a local store stays in the community, compared to 13 percent at chain stores.

This holiday season, shop wisely. Use your available credit sparingly. Take time to enjoy the season. And make your dollars work for you, for those on your gift list and for your community. Make a commitment to shop local.

Susan Milhoan is president and CEO of the Retail Alliance, a group headquartered in Norfolk that represents retailers throughout Hampton Roads.