The Bike Hub downtown Manager Tim Dunn (right) AND customer Scott Anderson

How to safely support local businesses this holiday season

By Mariah McKay and Janice Miller

With an uncertain future ahead of us, all nonessential work, schools and many public services were required to temporarily shut down in March. People flocked to e-commerce for its remote convenience as local businesses quickly adapted behind the scenes. Now with delivery, customer circulation control and curbside pickup options available, local businesses are again poised to safely serve their customers. But the damage has been done, and the default Amazon Prime competition factor still remains.

While locally owned small businesses watched revenues plummet and pivoted to the new normal, Amazon doubled its yearly profit — raking in $5.2 billion. In the words of the newly placed billboard outside Powell’s Books in Portland, “Amazon is going to be fine, folks.”

So what will it take to make our Main Streets thrive again? We are poised to turn this disaster into a wholesale revival for our locally owned business sector. Aside from the real and heartwarming anecdotes about how buying a local piece of art makes a real person do a happy dance, hiring from a local service company pays someone’s tuition, and shopping local helps put food on your neighbor’s table; local spending is vital to the survival of communities now more than ever. When major chain stores ran out of essentials, the same items could often be found at locally owned businesses with alternative supply chains. Local small businesses rose to the response effort immediately, helping to feed school children in need and contributing products and services to local charities they had long-standing relationships with.

Spokane was built on small business ingenuity, tight-knit community support and the unofficial city motto “We don’t want to be Seattle.” When it comes to the economic recovery of Spokane, the only way to get through the pandemic and maintain the unique charm and diversity of our small-business community is to each do our part where possible.

A 2011 study from the Maine Center for Economic Policy found that every $100 spent at locally owned businesses results in $58 reinvested into the local economy. When spent at a chain store, only $33 of that same $100 is reinvested. Even less than that recirculates locally when shopping on large e-commerce sites. If even a fraction of the Amazon orders that have been delivered to Spokane doorsteps in the last several months came from locally owned businesses, we’d be seeing fewer empty storefronts in our neighborhoods. Amazon is going to be just fine, folks.

Can individual choices add up to making a difference? According to a 2014 study by the Institute for Local Self Reliance, businesses reported sales increases between 5.3 percent and 7 percent in communities where a “buy local” campaign is implemented. Nationwide, communities have begun to establish local marketplaces alongside buy-local campaigns to promote locally owned businesses and services, and to provide a one-stop-shop for consumers to find everything their communities have to offer and an easy, accessible way for consumers to shop online locally. In addition to your personal purchases, you can influence others to join you in the buy-local movement so that individual efforts create the momentum for a systemic response.

Thanks to funding from the city of Spokane through the CARES Act, a coalition of community partners formally launched Live Local INW, a community-driven buy-local education campaign, online directory and virtual marketplace for locally owned businesses in Spokane. Each listing is free for the business owner, and consumers can browse Spokane’s small businesses any time of day, anywhere in the world, no masks required.

This shared effort helps smaller businesses overcome the obscurity they often face because they don’t have the gigantic marketing budgets that larger corporations ultimately make you pay for. Local businesses have time-honored expertise and impeccable customer service, and they will continue to be here for you if we show up for them.

This holiday season, let’s be thoughtful about investing in our neighbors and circulating more wealth into our regional economy, and let’s make someone do a happy dance. This winter, shop local, hire local, eat local: Live Local.

Mariah McKay of the Spokane Independent Metro Business Alliance and Janice Miller of Inland Northwest Business Alliance are directors of the Live Local INW campaign.

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