When visitors arrive in Columbia, do they go to the strips lined with national chain stores to get acquainted with the Capital City? No, they head for local landmarks: restaurants, beautiful outdoor vistas, sports arenas, entertainment venues, historic sites, churches, festivals and — critically, locally-owned independent stores. These are the places that reveal the pulse of a city, the unique character of its people and culture.
Keeping these places alive is to increase the appeal that makes people want to live in the Midlands.
That’s why it’s important to “think local and buy local,” especially from independent companies owned by South Carolinians. This shopping mentality keeps businesses in the Midlands alive, and, in turn, keeps the community alive.
In deciding where to buy, it’s also essential to consider where the money ends up when a purchase is made. According to Heather Spires, City Center Partnership vice president for recruitment, studies across the nation show that when consumers spend a dollar with a local independent shop, about 70 cents of that dollar stays in the community and supports other local businesses, local service providers and local farms. But when that dollar is spent at a big-box store, only about 30 cents remain in the local economy. Internet purchases ship even more dollars out of town — all of them, in fact, except possibly the few paid to the local deliveryman.
Mark McGrady, general manager of Seven Oaks Plant Shop in Irmo, feels strongly about keeping “local dollars local.” He follows this philosophy himself, whether for personal needs or shop inventory.
“At any given time,” Mark explains, “my plant inventory is about 75 percent South Carolina grown. We buy from small family growers if at all possible, and we’ve made a conscious decision to do so. When you buy from us, you’re not supporting just my family; you’re also supporting three or four other families here in the Midlands and others within the state of South Carolina. It really is trickle-down economics. When you spend the money with big-box stores that buy from big mass-production houses in North Carolina or Florida, that money is gone; it’s not staying here in the state.”
Unique or hard-to-find products and top-of-the-line customer service are another big part of why it’s to the consumer’s advantage to buy local. Owner Bev Tuller of Mary & Martha’s kitchen shop tells of one customer who wanted lead-free glassware and had found a suitable line on the Internet — but the manufacturer would only sell the line through brick-and-mortar stores. This customer called all over town looking for a store that carried the line and discovered that only Mary & Martha’s stocked it. Bev ordered the customer’s pattern choice, one the store did not have on hand, in glasses, plates and bowls. Try asking a national chain for service like that … but don’t expect to get it.
As for buying on the Internet, Scott Satterfield, who owns Jewelry Warehouse, fully believes in the customer-service advantage local independents have over Web stores. He opines, “The Internet serves a tremendous purpose for a lot of different businesses. But when you’re talking about jewelry, if I’m buying something for my wife, I want to make sure what I’m getting her is perfect. The average guy coming into one of our stores probably wouldn’t know some of the things we would ask him in order to find that perfect piece, like hair length or body build. On the Internet, it’s harder to take these considerations into account. Yes, you can buy from a nameless, faceless person, but you won’t get the helpful knowledge we can draw out, or the look and feel of the item you’re buying.”
For those who feel they save money by purchasing on the Web, Strobler Home Furnishings co-owner Beth Fisher says her business, like many other locally owned brick-and-mortar stores, will match a genuinely lower competitor’s price. So why pay the extra for shipping from an out-of-town Internet vendor? Local vendors who may not be able to match a lower price ask this provocative question: Is the savings from buying on the Web really worth it, considering how locally owned businesses care more about the communities they live and work in?
Beth adds, “When you find a lower price on the Internet for an item, a lot of times you’re not comparing apples to apples, or the company is not reputable or is not going to give you good service.”
Yet another “why” for buying local, Bev Tuller says, is that local stores can develop personal relationships with their customers. “We laugh a lot and have fun at work,” she says, “and customers have fun with us! We have customers who bring us cake and pecan pie at Christmas. Relationships like that can happen with independent stores. You know your customers, you know what they like, and you know you’re appreciated for what you do for them.”
A grab bag of other considerations for spending your dollars at a community independent store would have to include the reduced environmental impact of buying local. For instance, if a customer goes to City Roots and buys a head of lettuce pulled right out of the ground, the only gas expended in that purchase is the small amount the customer uses in driving to this in-town Columbia farm. Furthermore, unlike lettuce trucked in from many miles away, the lettuce remains unwaxed — a health bonus for the body. And the local purchases that local stores make to fill their own business needs call for shorter transportation time, which means less pollution in the area. Finally, locally owned businesses put more people to work across this nation than any other employer.
In spite of all the advantages of shopping local, more and more often entrepreneurs who own stores are finding themselves dealing with an unfortunate phenomenon called “showrooming.” Consumers go into local independent stores; check out the helmets, jackets, shoes or whatever; decide exactly what size and color they need; and then order the items online with a smart phone — sometimes right in front of the Midlands store owner. This trend is really crippling some independents.
Heather Spires offers insight on this and other challenges confronting local independents. “What we are seeing,” she says, “is that big-box retail and online shopping are separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to local independent retailers. Brick-and-mortar locations are being challenged to up their game and provide an exceptional customer experience, and those who are able to do so successfully are thriving. The best retailers of all sizes are using the Web to enhance sales.”
Along with many other local shop owners, Scott Satterfield has proven himself among the wheat sheaves when it comes to upping his game and providing an exceptional customer experience. Among the tactics Scott uses to attract local customers away from big-box stores and the Internet is his “Rainy Day Guarantee” promotion, which promises a bride whose diamond was bought at Jewelry Warehouse that if it rains at least 1 inch on her wedding day, she can get her money back for that diamond up to $10,000. No gimmicks, just a form to fill out by the deadline and a trip to the store, receipt in hand, after the nuptials have taken place.
Scott smiles as he confesses, “We like to do fun promotions tied into what we’re selling, and as a local independent, we can do them whenever we want without waiting for corporate approval. Our goal is to give our customers a fun experience in our store because if they have a good time, they’re going to come back. God has truly blessed us.”
But what should a consumer to do if an item needed can’t be found in a locally owned independent store? Mark McGrady says he goes online and tries to buy it from a small producer or a store that’s locally owned in some other location.
When there’s no time to wait for an online delivery, however, as Beth Fisher acknowledges, there’s a place for big-box stores if they carry items no local independent carries.
Being reasonable people, local brick-and-mortar store owners don’t ask that shoppers stop buying at national chains altogether; they simply ask that customers strive for balance when making buying decisions. Their suggestions: consider allocating perhaps an additional $50 of regular monthly purchasing to local businesses; save big-box stores for items no local business carries; and as more and more of Columbia’s consumers follow this short creed, watch the local economy take off as never before.