Catherine Thorpe: Shop Big at Small Retailers

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It’s the holiday shopping season and Catherine Thorpe says now is the time to shop big at struggling small, local retailers.

My friend and I end our Friday night walk in the heart of town, pausing to admire lit-up store windows. Over the years, shops have come and gone – but 2020 is unusual.

We pass the bookstore. Bright and early October 1, I got my first holiday shopping email of the year from the normally laid-back owner, urging me to get started on gifts immediately.

Why the rush? Abridged print runs, slowed shipments and other COVID-weakened links in the supply chain.

But it's more than that. The cruel truth is that local stores are bearing the brunt of the retail industry's COVID chaos – the 2020 chapter of a David-and-Goliath saga.

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For one, at the start of the pandemic, shelter-in-place orders closed neighborhood stores while big boxes stayed open.

Plus, while stuck at home, we all went shopping online. E-commerce is way up, but most locally-owned retailers aren't competitive on the web. Instead, we're spending more on Amazon, which already accounts for 40 percent plus of all online sales.

Our Friday tour through downtown hints at the impact. A store selling artsy clothes and jewelry closed after 23 years. The donut shop closed in May. After the community rallied, the candle store stayed open – but for how long?

It's fair to ask how many fancy tapers our town can keep buying; small businesses do need to evolve. But with retailers counting on the holidays to ring up the year's biggest sales, the next few weeks could determine whether they'll even get the chance.

With everything 2020 has brought, it's hard to give holiday shopping top priority. The convenience of the one-click order is more appealing than ever. But for those who can, spending intentionally can make the difference between main streets that are inviting to walk – or vacant and haunted by the rumble of e-commerce delivery trucks.

With a Perspective, I’m Catherine Thorpe.

Catherine Thorpe writes about retail technology and shops on the Sonoma Plaza.