Buying Your Holiday Gifts From Small Businesses? What Owners Want You to Know

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A pair of hands wrapping a white holiday gift box with red ribbon
If you're shopping for gifts for holidays like Christmas or Hanukkah, you might consider supporting small businesses with your dollars. (Any Lane/Pexels)

Small businesses have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have recently voiced their concerns about the lack of government support for their livelihoods.

And with the news that retail operations will have to operate at 20% capacity due to the new stay-at-home order in place across parts of the Bay Area — and other businesses forced to temporarily close through Jan. 4 — many independent businesses have expressed grave fears about their future.

If you're feeling compelled to support small businesses in particular as much as possible with your holiday gift shopping this year, you're not alone. About 51% of California respondents to a recent Union Bank survey said they’d even spend $20 more on an item to support a small or local business, as opposed to saving $20 by purchasing from a large retailer.

Even if you've got the best of intentions with your purchases, or if you regularly support local businesses anyway, there are a few things you might not know that could make a difference to the small retailers in your community — things that might make your dollars even more supportive to them. We asked several local business owners how customers can especially help them out this holiday season.

Gift Cards Are Your Friend

The humble gift card: a friendship-saver when you want to get a person something but have no idea what they'd actually like — or just don't have time to pick something out.

Don't forget about gift cards this holiday season. Many bookstores — like Green Apple, pictured here — offer them (green kozi via Flickr)

Bookstores particularly love gift cards, says Pete Mulvihill, the co-owner of Green Apple Books, which has three stores across San Francisco. That's because they're a great way of bringing in new customers.

"If that person has never been here, then we just got a new customer, which is super valuable in the long run," he says. "And if we get them in the first time, they usually come back."

You might also consider purchasing a gift card from a local restaurant as a way of supporting an industry that's been hit particularly hard by the  pandemic. If you're concerned about changing COVID-19 restrictions and closures making your gift difficult to redeem, check with the restaurant that their gift cards can also be used to buy takeout.

And bear in mind that if the recipient doesn't redeem the card after all, the small business still gets the payment you provided when you bought it.

Electronic gift cards, sent to a person's email and redeemable in the form of website codes, also allow the recipient to choose their gift completely online without having to visit a store in person during the pandemic. (They can also be sent instantly at the very last minute if you ran out of time to choose or deliver an in-person gift ... but you didn't hear that from us, OK?)

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Remember: Bookstores Might Sell More Than You Think

Don't limit yourself to thinking a local bookstore only sells books, advises Deborah Day, owner of Vallejo bookstore Ashay by the Bay.

Her store specializes in African American and multicultural children’s books, and partners with schools to facilitate online book fairs. It not only offers books for parents, but educational materials and puzzles, too.

Other independent local bookstores might provide you with yearly calendars, bookmarks, cards, toys or themed memorabilia.

If you can't enter a store to browse in person because of COVID-19 restrictions, take an extra five minutes to browse their website — or just give them a call direct and speak to a member of staff to find out what they offer. Asking what their most popular gifts are is often a good start.

Consider Subscriptions, Too

Subscriptions can be a true help to small businesses, says Doug Hewitt, co-founder and CEO of 1951 Coffee Company — a Bay Area nonprofit that provides job training and employment to refugees, asylees and special immigrant visa holders.

An employee of 1951 Coffee sits holding a bag of coffee
1951 Coffee Company's beans are available to purchase as a subscription as a gift — a model that helps small businesses plan for the future. (Courtesy 1951 Coffee)

In addition to coffee beans and merchandise — including mugs and apparel with multilingual designs — 1951 Coffee Company's website also offers subscriptions as a way of regularly gifting freshly roasted direct-trade coffee to the person of your choice.

And subscriptions are particularly supportive to a business like this, Hewitt says, because "predictability helps everything move forward" and provides a reliable source of income a small store can plan around. As a gift-giver, subscriptions are also a nice way to give something with a lasting impact beyond the holiday season.

If Things Get Complex, Remember You're Buying More Than a Gift

Yes, intentionally spending your holiday dollars at a small local business can take more time, effort and planning than hitting up a big box store, or purchasing online from a huge company like Amazon. You could also end up spending more money on the same item.

But remember why you're doing it — especially during a pandemic that closed many small businesses so far.

Green Apple's Pete Mulvihill urges you to think " 'if X store closed, would I be really sad?' Then make that list in your head, and spend your money at those shops," he says.

Joey Montoya is CEO and founder of Urban Native Era, an online clothing brand that focuses on designs that increase the visibility of Indigenous people and issues. He stresses how a purchase from his company isn't just about the product you're buying.

Urban Native Era's designs — like their 'You Are On Native Land' range — is intended to increase the visibility of Indigenous people and issues (Courtesy of Urban Native Era)

"When you invest in a small business, you're really investing in the person, the community, the resources they use, and you're essentially just giving back into the community," Montoya says.

He also points out that small businesses provide jobs and meaningful careers in the community. Thanks to customers supporting his business, Montoya's been able to bring on four new employees in 2020, and offer these careers in design and fashion within his community.

Montoya's also hopeful that continued support through online orders might allow him to realize his hope of opening a physical location for Urban Native Era — which was born in San Francisco, and is now run out of Los Angeles — that would also function as an Indigenous community space. "Especially with our community, it's really hard to find a space to gather, a space to be," he says.

His ultimate dream: "Opening up a store or a location right below where I where I grew up in San Francisco, in the Mission."

Post About Them on Social Media

Something you might overlook in the rush to secure gifts: using your purchase as an opportunity to give a small business a shoutout on your social media platform of choice.

Whether it's on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram or Facebook, an idea can spread fast — and your post about opting to buy gifts from small businesses might plant a seed in someone's head for their own purchases.

"Even if that person doesn't directly come to our shop, it just kind of helps spread that 'shop local' message," Mulvihill says.

Remember to tag the business in your post if possible, to allow them to see it and potentially share it themselves. (Just don't accidentally reveal what gifts you're buying while doing this.)

Leaving a review online can also be a huge boost for a local business, says Day of Ashay by the Bay bookstore — especially if they're supportive of the extra time and effort smaller stores have to undertake to serve their customers.

Day remembers one particular review from a time when her bookstore was "inundated with a lot of business, and we were trying to get the order out as quickly as possible," and instead of being frustrated by the wait time, the reviewer acknowledged how she "had to wait a while for my books, but it was worth it."

"Those kind of reviews are great," Day says.

Posting about a small business like Ashay by the Bay on social media (or leaving a review) is a great help to local independent stores (Ashay by the Bay on Facebook)

Plan Ahead — and Be Patient

Fulfilling orders for customers in the middle of a pandemic has proved tricky enough for independent businesses to navigate this year, and the holiday season can only complicate things. They also might be operating on reduced hours or a smaller staff.

As we mentioned about ordering takeout over the holidays from local restaurants, extending your respectful understanding to small businesses at all stages of your holiday shopping — from placing your order to arranging pickup or delivery — is the most compassionate, human way to go this holiday season.

"Shop early and be patient," advises Green Apple's Mulvihill.

Placing your holiday orders with a business as soon as you're able will reduce the likelihood of a last-minute scramble on both sides, and increase the odds of a successful gift-giving. If you're met with any delays or corrections on the businesses' side, remember what the staff might be up against. Stay calm and cool, and work with them to resolve any situations that need it.

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