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Helping local businesses

If you tell anyone that this has not been a difficult year, it’s very likely you are not being honest with yourself.

From missed birthdays, graduations and weddings to lost chances to spend time with friends and loved ones to conducting meetings through video conferencing, the challenges brought on by COVID-19 have led to big changes in the way we live our lives.

While every segment of the economy has been touched in many ways, small businesses are among those that have been hit the hardest. Many face an uncertain future, even with what is traditionally the busiest shopping season of the year already under way. According to American Express, 62 percent of small businesses have reported that they need to see consumer spending return to pre-COVID levels by the end of the year just to stay in business.

That’s a sobering statistic, but one, the presidents of area chambers of commerce say, we can have an effect on by shopping local this season.

“It’s so important this year because of the hits our small businesses have taken this year,” said Tricia Maple-Damewood, president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce. “The general public might think that things are back to normal, but the financial damage that was done to some of our businesses will take years to come back from. Just because there is traffic on the streets and the stores are full doesn’t mean that our community is not hurting.”

The pandemic also has helped to speed up changes in exactly when the Christmas shopping season is. Many retailers have abandoned their traditional Black Friday specials — and have been offering what they call “Black Friday deals” since the beginning of the month.

That’s smart — it’s better to have shopping spread out across a longer period than to have stores jammed with people Thanksgiving evening and the next day.

Shoppers are responding, but not like they have in the past. Officials with the National Retail Federation, for instance, reported Monday that 59 percent of holiday shoppers said they had started early in the month, a 21 percent increase during the past decade. The federation estimates that consumers expect, on average, to spend $997.79 on gifts, food, decorations and nongift purchases this year. That’s $50 less than last year.

“I’m hoping businesses are able to hang on,” explained Brenda Mull, president of the Weirton Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re working hard to make sure people know to keep their money local and what it means to the businesses. Remember, 67 cents of every dollar spent locally stays here, and that’s important.”

That impact is even greater when you consider how each dollar spent at a local business can grow. American Express reports that for every dollar spent at a local business 30 cents is spent with local vendors and suppliers and 20 cents will be spent locally by the businesses and their employees.

“Of course it’s always important to shop local,” said Debbie Puskarich, president of the Follansbee Chamber of Commerce. “Local businesses employ local people. They are more active in the community than the big chains are. You need those businesses in our area to keep the economy going.”

One of the reminders to shop local is coming on Small Business Saturday, which falls two days after Thanksgiving, just like it has since 2010, when American Express started the promotion as a way to help small businesses and communities.

Last year that single day saw a record $19.6 billion in revenue for small independent shops and restaurants. That’s a lot of money.

“It’s very important to shop local this year,” Puskarich said. “Many businesses are struggling, and more and more people are shopping online. In order for the small business owner to be able to survive, they need local people to shop at local businesses.”

Maple-Damewood agrees.

“The holidays are a perfect time to remember all of the businesses that were here for us when the pandemic began and we couldn’t leave the area,” she said. “We need to keep shopping at stores we always have shopped at. Your first option should be to seek out, find and shop at local businesses. The chamber will again offer many programs to help members and make it easy for people to find a great place to find a gift and enjoy a meal.”

That includes setting up tables on Small Business Saturday and offering coffee and coupons to shoppers, as well as the annual local receipt contest, in which one person will win $250. Area residents will have the chance to earn one entry for every $50 spent at a local business between Saturday and Christmas, with complete details available by contacting the chamber.

While the chamber executives agree area residents should spend their money locally, they add it’s important for the businesses to maintain high standards.

“Businesses are really thinking outside the box,” Puskarich said. “They are working hard to try and get customers into their stores.”

That’s important, Maple-Damewood said.

“I pound the customer service drum all of the time. Businesses have to make sure they are clean, comfortable and friendly and have the goods and services people want. They have done a great job with coming up with creative ideas,” she added.

Seeing local dollars stay local is especially critical now.

“Many business owners are struggling,” Puskarich said. “In order for the small business owners to be able to survive, area residents need to shop at local businesses.”

Maple-Damewood said the differing and constantly changing state guidelines have presented a challenge to small businesses.

“Local businesses have been hit the hardest,” she said “They have taken a lot of flack from people who say they are the places where spikes occur, but I don’t think that’s the case. I see them stepping up and following all of the safety protocols. Regardless of your position, we can’t afford for our businesses to close.”

Eventually, the COVID-19 crisis will pass, but to make sure our economy continues to work, we need to make the effort to shop local now.

“In the times we are in right now, we have to support our local businesses,” Mull said. “When this pandemic is over, we want to know they will still be here. And after what they have been through, they deserve to be here.”

(Gallabrese, a resident of Steubenville, is executive editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)

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