A Local New Year

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By Chris Watson

I have been hearing, almost as a constant drumbeat, the anxiety of local businesses since the third week of December. Not because they had a poor holiday season nor because of the changing of the guard in Washington. Certainly not because of the stock market or recent jobs report. By all indicators retail in general seems fine.

No, January and February are always anxious months for local business, in particular retail.  First and foremost we as consumers habitually decrease our spending right after the holidays. It is just natural. We are recovering from the spending flurry of just one month before. Weather too plays a role. After all, the first eight days of January have been, in a word, FRIGID. The setting of Disney’s Frozen might be pleasant when experienced on High Def but it is positively activity numbing when we experience it in real life.

Short Days, Long Nights

Local businesses all try to compensate for what they know will be a lull in spending during the deep dark of winter. They know it is coming and do their best to run their businesses accordingly. However, it never seems to be enough. For many businesses that have constant inventory issues, like restaurants and markets, even with a lower demand some products must still be stocked.

Of course, lower traffic doesn’t mean lower rent, utilities, insurances, or other routinized services. We have all experienced this. Job slow downs or less hours doesn’t affect our mortgage nor our electric bill, just are ability to pay those bills. Our favored local businesses are no different.

Big box retailers and restaurant chains experience the same problems and anxieties.  Anyone who works at these businesses, especially in the chain restaraunts, knows of this inevitable slow down. Hours get cut back, whole shifts of single single purchases, and those servers who depend on tips know, really truly know, cold and dark nights that are winter. It is as if the whole world just hibernates for a few weeks.

Big Versus Small

During these winter months big box retailers and restaurants have significant advantage over their smaller, local cousins. First they are capitalized over a wide range of financial instruments and credit lines, giving them great flexability in staying open during leaner times.  Second, they lay off workers (or hire seasonal ones in the first place).  Many simply cut hours to the point where it is necessary for their staff to seek out other employment. Finally, in drastic cases like Macy’s, they simple cut their “location inventory”, a fancy way of saying they close stores.

Most of these options are not available to our favorite local restaurant or merchant.  First, they hate laying people off.  Second, they don’t have the financial deep pockets that their big box brothers and sisters do. Any “financial instrument” they use is likely to be out of their own salary or assets and any layoffs they conduct are friends and neighbors, not just ‘human resources.”  Finally, most only have one store in their “inventory.”

What We Can Do…or Now More Than Ever

Local merchants and businesses recognize that it is the time that is lean, not our interest or support. And, like during the holiday season, they know that shopping local is a choice and, at times, a commitment in time and resources. They appreciate, more than ever, your patronage and business.

So as always, in these lean times, the appeal has to be made to BUY LOCAL. More than ever it is during the first two months of the year that a little bit of support for each of us goes a long way in bridging the gap between holiday and spring.

  • Rather than a drive through a fast food joint get takeout from a local restaurant
  • Divert one grocery shopping trip this month to a local market
  • Eat out at a local restaurant or diner once this month.  Breakfast is a great, inexpensive option
  • Skip one internet purchase and seek out a local source.  Just one.
  • Support local entertainment, including local sports (Like UT women’s basketball or Walleye Hockey)

Any ONE of these things is a big boost to our local economy in general, and the local merchant in particular. No one in our local community wants you to spend more than you need or spend extra beyond what you can afford. However, your dollars, even the lean precious dollars of the New Year, go further and burn brighter in the dark days of winter. Now more than ever, seeking out and supporting your local merchants, retailers, restaurants, and service providers is a huge boost and ensuring those businesses will be with us not just through the winter but for years to come.