Gift buyers like local mom-and-pop shops’ unique choices

By Erin Kutz and Jayne O’Donnell, USA TODAY

Published November 14, 2011

Economic concerns linger, but mom-and-pop retailers say they finally have some cheer for this holiday shopping season.

Nearly half are more optimistic about holiday sales than last year, according to a new survey of 792 small retailers by online small-business community Manta. Four in 10 say they already have better sales compared with last fall.

“More than ever, the consumers in our community really seem to understand the value of shopping locally,” said Jodi Black, co-owner of Conover, N.C.-based Beautiful Brains Books and Games. “We are hopeful this trend will continue through the upcoming holiday season.”

Overall, holiday retail sales are expected to rise 2.8% during November and December to $465.6 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.

That boost will come from folks like Brady Kimball of Los Angeles. She is considering bracelets and necklaces as gifts for friends — and checking them out at Meowdy, a boutique near her home.

It’s vital for local retailers to lure customers such as Kimball, as holiday sales typically make up about 20% to 30% of retailers’ annual sales, NRF says.

Kimball’s attraction to local shopping dates back to the years she browsed the tiny shops near her hometown of Harvard, Mass.

“The relationships we developed with these local independent retailers made our shopping a more personal experience,” says Kimball, 36. That, in turn, “made any gifts we got for friends and family all that more meaningful.”

The thoughtfulness and personal connection associated with unique gifts are among the biggest draws for Main Street shops, says Alison Jatlow Levy, a retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon.

Independent store shoppers can find an unusual present “that has a great story behind it,” says Levy, who often shops in New York City boutiques. “Local stores can add to the treasure-hunting aspect of gift shopping that the national chain stores often miss.”

While many small stores have a special cachet, they typically lack the resources of their larger competitors. Stores that don’t place big bulk orders miss out on hefty discounts. Smaller shops’ often tighter return policies and less-convenient hours add to the challenge of competing with chains.

Small firms have to work hard for their survival. Some of their tactics for luring customers to their doors:

•Focusing on personal service. Sales and discounts are very important, with 42% of shoppers saying those are a top draw, according to the NRF. Yet, customer service is growing in importance and is one of the “vital components in consumers’ decision-making processes,” NRF says.

Three-quarters of the retailers surveyed by Manta said customer service helps them stand apart from chain-store competitors. But in a separate Manta survey, 38% of retailers said they aren’t hiring additional holiday staff because they can’t afford to.

“I keep track of what my customers like and don’t like,” Black says. “And I can suggest things based on those recommendations.” That personal touch keeps people coming back, says Manta CEO Pamela Springer.

•Playing up community impact. Shopping at a local boutique has three times the economic impact that shopping at corporate stores does, says Frank Knapp Jr., CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

For every $100 spent in locally owned, independent stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll and other expenditures, according to small-business advocacy group The 3/50 Project.

“Shopping locally keeps the dollars that are spent in the community,” says Allison Proehl, 46, of Jacksonville Beach, Fla. “Our local paper said it best: If you want a store or restaurant to survive, you have to make a conscious effort to visit those places.”

•Tapping into social media. Three-fourths of small firms surveyed by Manta plan to use social media to promote their holiday offerings this year.

“Like big retailers, we see the value in leveraging social media to reach people in new ways this holiday season,” says Joseph Nerkowski, owner of Holiday Lighting, an Ulby, Mich., retailer.

•Touting green practices. Independent shop owners often look to nearby artists and manufacturers for inventory, which limits transportation costs.

“Those mass-produced gifts from big-box stores come from far-off factories, then get shipped all over the world in huge trucks, boats and planes,” says Becky Striepe, senior editor of Green Upgrader, an online publication about green living. “When you support local artists, you’re saying no to all of those miles and keeping your money within your community at the same time.”

•Offering localized merchandise. Gifts purchased from a local store can also put a stamp of the area on the item. That can mean a lot to loved ones nostalgic for their hometowns.

Marty Checkoway, owner of Firefly Jewelry and Gifts in Boston, says one such gift is an ornament with a picture of baseball stadium Fenway Park.

“What it comes down to is, it makes the experience for the gift a little more special,” he says.

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