Let’s be honest: It takes no small amount of willpower and dedication to avoid doing all of your shopping with big-box online retailers. But as retail trends over the past decade have shifted toward click-of-the-mouse consumerism, community-minded shoppers have responded in force with their own campaigns to support small, local businesses instead. And while it certainly feels good to put your dollars toward small business owners instead of faceless corporate entities, the effects of doing so are actually manyfold:
- Locally owned businesses are known to drive higher income growth and lower levels of poverty for their regions, unlike big box chains.
- Local businesses recirculate money back into their communities at a rate much higher than larger chains. One study found that “if the residents of [Portland, Maine] were to shift 10 percent of their spending from chains to locally owned businesses, it would generate $127 million in additional local economic activity and 874 new jobs.” And those estimates are reflected in similar studies conducted in cities nationwide.
As Heather Girves, co-owner of the whimsically-curated home and gift boutique The Gardener of Bath, puts it: “I’m taking the ten dollars that you spent in my store, and I’m going and buying groceries at our farmer’s market or I’m shopping at another small business, and the money flows out from there. If you spread your money around to small, local shops you’re going to see artists supported, you’re going to see cool things happen.”
The Gardener of Bath’s online business is thriving, but Girves and her husband also maintain a brick-and-mortar location in Akron, Ohio, that allows them to prioritize their community in a way that big-box stores are by definition less able to do. They recently bought a 1966 Phoenix Camping Trailer that they’ve turned into a mobile ice cream parlor, out of which they plan to sell house-made teas and ice cream crafted with local ingredients. “It’s providing another experience that you’re not going to get anywhere else,” Girves explains. “We live in this area that has a ton of children and adults, with pretty decently paying jobs, and there’s no place to get ice cream other than a Cold Stone Creamery. That’s not the same. We can do so much better; we deserve better! People are hungry for real life experiences.”
And if you take the time to support small, women-owned retailers, you’ll also be doing your part to combat the motherhood bias that pervades more traditional workplaces.
“I love the flexibility that I have,” shares baker turned healthy dry goods purveyor Jennifer Mellard, of Gold Coast Traditions. “And I love that I get to decide where I want to take the business. I’m married and I’ve got a couple of kids and if I need to bring them up to work with me, they come. The other part of your life doesn’t stop just because you go to work.”
Working for oneself also allows small business owners to choose employees and purveyors that align with their own values. For Camilia Z. Majette, the founder and CEO of a line of all-natural, Shea butter-based beauty and body products called Nailah’s Shea, that means scrutinizing her supply chain to make sure her ingredients are ethically sourced and fair trade-certified. “Even when I’m reaching out to boutiques or different boutique shops, I want to make sure that we have the same values, and that we are mirroring each other in that way,” she notes.
Majette launched Nailah’s Shea as a single mother with limited resources, and it enabled her to raise her family out of poverty. She’s now run a thriving online business for the past five years and has even been able to carve out some of that most valuable of commodities for any working mother: Work-life balance. “Even if I have to lock myself in the bathroom with my Epsom salt or Himalayan salt and essential oil, I will try my best to do it at least once a day. It’s not easy but I find that I am able to prioritize that for myself.”
Of course, running any small business comes with its own unique hurdles. “There’s always challenges,” laughs Mellard. “The challenges never stop! Going online — I honestly thought it would be easier than it has been. Getting exposure is definitely a big challenge as well, when you have a limited budget for marketing.” Her solutions: Attending live events so people can sample the product and learn about the brand, and teaching herself how to run and optimize ads on social media. (Mellard recommends online gurus Miles Beckler, Molly Pittman and Mike Dillard for those facing the same challenges in the social media realm).
And then there are more traditional barriers, like access to working capital. As Majette explains, “A lot of the money that I do make has to go back into the products, and into shipping and packaging. There’s a certain aesthetic that I like to have as well with my products, which my customers love and I want to keep it that way.” In growing the Nailah’s Shea business, Majette relied on resources throughout her community such as the YMCA of Greensboro: “I’d say the most important advice for other small business owners is to be persistent and know when to ask for help. If you don’t ask for help, then how can anyone help you?” Majette also participated in eBay’s Retail Revival program, a 12-month program geared toward equipping small businesses with the skills they need to thrive in the global economy via comprehensive training, individualized coaching and ongoing promotional support. Given the power of eBay to amplify a small business owner’s reach and brand awareness, many burgeoning retailers are turning to the Retail Revival program to help scale their business in a variety of ways.
Gold Coast Traditions’ Mellard learned innovative marketing strategies from the Retail Revival coach with whom she was paired: “Instead of just offering one product, you can also pair it with something that would go well with it. I’ve paired our pancake mix with a cookie cutter, for example. I also made a Christmas basket at holidays. It’s that kind of thing: Create some combination deals. Offer some specials. It’s good to have some other brains in there to help you think of new things that you can do with your stuff.”
Girves, meanwhile, leaned on the Retail Revival program to learn the ins and outs of using eBay’s algorithm to sell more Gardener of Bath products: “If I hop on eBay, and I change some of the wording in my listings, or I add two or three more products — just having put in that time I’ll see an uptick in sales, as opposed to if I have twenty thousand dollars worth of product on my page, it will just sit around.” Her first year with the program yielded big returns: “We were having a very slow, early spring, late winter, so it was a very helpful boost for us and even just in morale.”
The dominance of big-box retailers means that kind of insider intel can make all the difference to independent retailers, like Girves:
“I would say our main struggle is people not wanting to look anymore. They want to come in and find exactly what they want, and if we don’t have that exact item, in that exact color, they’ll just leave and go order it on their phone. So I would say that providing an experience, and showing people that you can help them find something to really celebrate the person that they’re buying for … that whole experience piece is key to having the success that we’ve had. When you’re lost and you’re like,’Oh my God, I don’t know what to get this person because she or he has everything.’ We’re who a lot of people come to then.”
The solution? “A hyper focus on customer service,” she concludes. “Nobody wants to feel like somebody just pushing buttons.”
Looking for more wisdom about starting your own business? Check out this video of eBay’s inspiring Head of Global Impact, Alexis Gallivan — also the founder of cultishly adored Blue Marble Ice Cream! — that we snagged at The Riveter Summit.