There was a time not so many decades ago that people spent their money at locally owned businesses in their own downtowns. Granted this had little to do with local loyalty. It eventually fell by the wayside as advances in transportation and manufacturing allowed for massive amounts of cheaper goods to be sold by large department stores and grocery stores that could buy those goods in bulk. Obviously, we still have downtowns with stores and restaurants, but they had only begun to make a modest comeback when the pandemic changed everything. After a year of massively reduced dining out, reduced in person shopping and the immense increase in online shopping, how could I possibly be optimistic? Hopefully, my reasons will resonate by the end of this blog.
First of all, the reasons our downtown local commerce was growing haven’t changed. At the same time The Buggles were popularizing “Video Killed the Radio Star” in their 1979 hit, giant indoor shopping malls were killing America’s downtown retail stores. Just a few decades before that, large department stores had already put the squeeze on mom-and-pop retail. Again, this created a way for Americans to buy more for less, but these changes were incredibly successful for a completely different reason. Americans had become full on consumers after WWII and shopping became an experience. Gone were the days of going to town to get necessities. Department stores weren’t just places to keep yourself and your home up to date with the latest fashion and fad, they were a destination outing. Sort of like going to a museum or an amusement park for a day, except coming home afterwards with a bunch of stuff you didn’t actually need. While there however, you could spend hours browsing thousands of items for sale which became a form of entertainment for many. You could also attend a store sponsored event, watch a demonstration and even buy lunch. The shopping mall created an even larger version of this experience. The mall only further grew in destination popularity as it had something for everyone in the family. Even I grew up with planned family Saturday trips to the mall. There was something for everyone, especially children. Indoor playgrounds with carousels, toy stores and candy shops. For teenagers, the mall was a temperature-controlled place to spend hours with friends and eat cafeteria style, ironically, just like school.
But then, one day the internet began to kill both the department stores and with them, the shopping malls. The Great Recession of 2008 added an even bigger financial hit to the struggling industry. Interestingly, at the same time buying online began to outpace buying in store, a new trend was emerging…. people started to rediscover their downtowns.
Shopping online is not an experience. If this activity creates any happy chemicals in our primal brains, its more akin to the dopamine sensation found by playing video games. A far cry from providing the basic human need of social connectiveness. But a Saturday in June, parking your car in the first spot you can find, meeting your friends at the farmers market, grabbing a cup of coffee at the local coffee shop, popping into a few local shops filled with unique and local things? That’s an experience. Ending the day at on the patio of your favorite local restaurant with a local craft beer, listening to a local band in the background as a breeze flows around the tall old brick buildings that tell the story of your community? That’s an experience.
There’s another part of this scenario also at play, conscious consumerism. Most prevalent among millennials, cheap has lost its ranking among the top reasons we buy what we buy. Cheap comes with a hidden price tag that the previous era of mindless consumerism kept far out of sight. Enough people began to talk about why so many things are cheap. Are $1 hamburgers healthy? Seems not. Where are cheap products made? In very poor countries by people who barely make enough to stay alive. How are cheap products made? With questionable materials in environmentally destructive factories. This is why many more Americans chose to spend $4 on a bar of soap made with known, safe ingredients by a local member of the community. And where do you find something like that? In a local shop in your local downtown.
The current forecast is calling for over half of all department stores in malls to close by the end of this year. As of December of 2020, over 110,000 restaurants had shuttered. The unfortunate reality is the retail, dining and hospitality sectors are not going to come out of this situation smelling like roses. They can however, come back. The question is, will we pick back up where we left off?
I believe we will. In fact, I believe the draw to spend our time and money in our historic downtown dining and retail districts will be stronger than ever. We miss people!! We miss being a part of our communities. We miss being a part of, well…anything! However, many of us are financially strapped.
In what is termed the retail apocalypse, 9500 chain stores closed in 2019 while 12,200 closed in 2020. This however does not include dollar stores. In 2019 Dollar General opened 975 new stores, the top retailer expanding just above similar retailers such as Family Dollar and Five Below.
Remember the conscious consumer willing to pay $4 for the local bar of soap? If they have $20,000 in student loan debt, they’ll leave it on the shelf when the price is $10. In order to truly see our historic downtowns thrive, we need to embrace diversity, including economic diversity.
All too often, these community destinations are also tourist destinations. No one, I repeat, no one is complaining about that. This allows local gift shops to keep the cash register ringing on end during the summer months and still keep the doors open with holiday sales in the off months. It is also often common to find many of the non-gift shop retail stores focused on higher end sales. The reality is that only 19% of Americans live in upper middle-income households. 52% are considered middle class and 29% lower.
We all understand that most of the things we buy aren’t manufactured (though often assembled) here in the United States. There certainly aren’t local makers of blue jeans or toasters, at least not that I know of. A conscious consumer would be willing to pay a few more dollars for something they need from a locally owned retailer vs getting it online or from a discount chain. In most downtowns, the closest thing to affordable for items like these is going to a thrift shop, if there is one.
For every $100 spent in a locally owned business, $68 will be retained within that community compared to $43 retained by a chain store/restaurant. This isn’t rocket science, its simple math. Supporting local is the obvious choice. Having a few businesses that offer affordable everyday items is a good idea for the whole community.
Whatever the future will look like in the months and years after the pandemic is over, I’m confident that investing in our local historic downtowns will be one of the smartest moves we’ve made in decades. I promise, that is where you will find me.
Meaningful Living Audrey L Elder