(Shopping) At home for the holidays

When I was a kid, my mother would applaud retailers like Nordstrom who held all Christmas advertising and decoration until after Thanksgiving. Nordstrom’s 120-year-old tradition of decking its halls only after Thanksgiving means store staff work hard to quickly get their stores suitably garnished for Black Friday shoppers. My mother and many others were fans of this retail restraint.

On the other hand, for me, “the holidays” encompassed three separate holiday seasons: Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year’s Day. I never minded the blending of the seasons simply because it was a two-month period of feasting, sharing and celebrating. The disparate holidays were separate in my mind but I enjoyed the eight-weeks-or-so of revelry. To be sure, I celebrated each holiday for what it was — I didn’t sacrifice Thanksgiving for a longer Christmas season, like a lot of retailers seem to do. But I didn’t mind the melding of the seasons.

Whatever your preference, you are surely aware the holiday season is driven by retail merchants — the yearly report of holiday sales almost never meets projections. But now more than ever, we need to pay attention to where we spend all that merry moolah — we must intentionally direct our holiday dollars to the small mom-and-pop shops populating our towns and cities.

Why?

Because these merchants are not only threatened by the aggressive big box stores that have been encroaching on them for years but also now by the COVID-magnified dependence we’ve suddenly displayed with online retail giants like Amazon. Never has the threat to small local retailers been greater than it is now.

Small local merchants are largely responsible for creating the unique flavor of the towns and cities they serve. Consider something: the first taste of your town a visitor is likely to receive is almost certainly the mom-and-pop shops lining its streets. When individuals and families consider relocating, sure, they look for large retailers like Lowe’s or Walmart but the special personality of a municipality is built by the little merchants that line tree-shaded streets, not by big box stores fronted by massive — and massively ugly — parking lots.

I live in a small city in the center of Oregon’s wine industry — although my town is dominated by one industry, the small retailers lining its downtown streets create a flavor unique to this city, and this city alone. Your town might be an agricultural town, a timber town or any number of other Northwest-themed municipalities but your little merchants are what define your city’s personality to visitors. For that matter, local folks should remember that the things they love about their area are not untouched by those merchants. Even if your attention is tied up with work, your kids’ school activities or other concerns, if you love your town, you probably love some of your local mom-and-pop shops. After all, these places are owned by your neighbors and friends.

Every time you or I spend money at big box stores or with Amazon when we could direct those dollars to local merchants, we are contributing to the threat. The worst part of it is, once those quirky and colorful local merchants are gone, they won’t be coming back. At best, they’ll be replaced by slick mall retailers or other national chains that take their earnings out of local communities.

Naturally, every community will have people who don’t care and others who might even prefer stores like Applebee’s, Foot Locker, Panera Bread, Starbucks or Yankee Candle — I mean, who needs local flavor when you can have the bland predictability of a national chain? I’ve even heard the cynical argument that the global economy negates the need for local merchants. Whatever. If you want to live in a mall or in a city populated with empty storefronts, fine. But most of us would prefer the patchwork of local shops that make up a community — merchants who know your name, live nearby, spend their earnings in town and who you see at school sports events.

This is why it’s important to intentionally shop locally.

In the first quarter of 2021, Amazon brought in over $108 billion. Of course, the revenue a company brings in is not the same as its profit but, still. That’s $108 billion that could’ve been spent at local merchants.

Then there is Walmart. Walmart isn’t a neutral presence in a community, siphoning cash from local merchants. Not only does the giant retailer contribute nothing to the special flavor of a community, it also actively and intentionally costs the cities it serves in ways many people do not consider.

In the fiscal year ending January 31, 2020, Walmart’s total revenue was $524 billion. In 2009, Walmart claimed over half of its 1.5 million U.S. employees received health care benefits through the company. But since then, Walmart has declined to disclose coverage rates and has taken steps to reduce coverage for associates. In 2014, the company eliminated coverage for part-time employees.

I understand it costs Walmart a bundle to provide health insurance. But when you rake in $524 billion, you have an obligation to minimally care for the people who enabled you to do that. Not only does Walmart fail to properly compensate its associates, the behemoth company intentionally uses public social services to ensure its employees can live, eat and be healthy.

Think about it this way: in effect, the wealthiest corporation in the world uses the nation’s overstretched emergency rooms as its de facto free employee health care program. In 2014, Forbes reported Walmart cost U.S. taxpayers $6.2 billion “…in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing…” Worse, the magazine reported “…a single Walmart Supercenter cost taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year, or between $3,015 and $5,815 on average for each of 300 workers.” Did you read that? Up to $1.75 million per year for one store in one community!

This is outrageous! Even if we assume the least cost and adjust for the lack of the word “super” on my local Walmart, this giant money-gobbler is leeching off my community to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

And much of it at the expense of little local merchants.

Now I get it that sometimes Walmart is a necessary evil. When money is tight and I need a product like pool chlorine that I can get at Walmart for half the price it is anywhere else, it’s mighty tempting to hit Walmart. Plus, there are no local retailers who sell pool chlorine in my town — there are two regional stores that stock it but none truly local. I understand sometimes supply or circumstance dictates a visit to Walmart. But my point is less about avoiding big box stores entirely than it is about being mindful where we spend our cash, making an effort to shop at local merchants whenever possible. If most of us did this, the peril facing mom-and-pop shops would shrink dramatically.

This Christmas, consider where you spend. If you need toys for the kids, consider getting a slightly more expensive quality toy from your local toy shop rather than a giant pink, plastic Chinese product from Walmart. Will you pay a little more? Perhaps. But the shopkeeper will know your name and maybe even those of your children. The clerk at the counter will remember you from the last time you came in. You’ll never have to spend 20 minutes looking for a sales associate to help you — and you’ll never encounter an associate who can’t provide an answer to your question. The few extra dollars you spend will be worth the down-home personal service you’ll experience.

Even better, by shopping at local merchants, you are contributing to helping your community thrive in times of retail peril — not helping engorge an obscenely rich family in Arkansas who is too cheap or too greedy to take care of the people who worked to give them that privilege. Or feeding an eccentric bazillionaire who could theoretically cure world hunger with his wealth and still live like a king.

However you celebrate the two-month season that’s come to be known as “the holidays,” be mindful where you spend, who you support. Now more than ever, shop locally whenever you can.


Photocomposite © Tim Mossholder and Artem Gavrysh via Unsplash

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