Shopping at small businesses has big impacts for communities

STAY LOCAL Linda Ashford, owner of Ashford's Heirlooms in downtown Gilroy, encourages the community to shop local. Photo: Marisa Duran Photography

The Covid-19 pandemic has put much of the country in a “back to the basics” mode of living.

People have been staying home much more than they used to, cooking their own meals, setting up their workstations and starting new crafty hobbies.

It has also opened their eyes to the challenges of small businesses, and the damage online mega-retailers such as Amazon have done to local economies and the independent neighborhood establishments.

According to Gary Walton, president of the Gilroy Downtown Business Association, studies have shown that roughly 48 percent of each purchase at a local business recirculates back into the community, compared to less than 14 percent of purchases from chain stores and even less from online retailers.

“When you support a local business, you’re also supporting your city,” Walton said. “Businesses pay sales taxes to our city, which are in turn used to support public schools, parks, roads and sidewalks, as well as fund public service workers, like firefighters.”

The restrictions brought on by local governments to contain the spread of Covid-19, coupled with customers’ hesitance to shop in person during the pandemic, have furthered the challenges for small businesses.

About 60 percent of all businesses across the nation that have closed during the pandemic have not reopened, according to Yelp’s Economic Impact Report. In addition, 1 in 5 small employers that received Paycheck Protection Program loans still anticipate having to lay off workers in the next six months, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

But residents can take matters into their own hands. Or rather, their wallets.

According to pre-pandemic numbers by the Gilroy Economic Development Corporation, Gilroy has roughly 2,200 businesses that employ fewer than 100 people each, accounting for more than 13,000 jobs in the city, or 70 percent of all jobs.

In Morgan Hill, 1,267 firms have fewer than 100 employees each, according to the California Employment Development Department. A total of 981 of those have fewer than nine employees each.

San Benito County has 1,429 businesses with 20 or fewer employees. A little more than a thousand of those have fewer than four employees each.

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, local small businesses are vying for those crucial dollars.

At Ashford’s Heirlooms, 7547 Monterey St. in downtown Gilroy, gift givers are sure to find something on their shopping lists among the numerous vintage and new items.

Kitchenware, furniture, potted plants, Christmas-themed decor and thousands of other items fill the store.

“We’ve been here 25 years,” said owner Linda Ashford. “It’s still one of the best spots in the town.”

The store consists of 15 different dealers who are constantly rotating their wares, making each visit a new experience.

“We’ve got people that love what they do,” she said. “They’re always out shopping and looking for the next best thing.”

Ashford noted that there is “such a difference” shopping locally instead of online.

“You are speaking with a real person instead of Amazon,” she said. “It supports our town, and all that tax revenue stays in our town. You drive 10 minutes and you’re in a cool little spot to shop.”

With all businesses taking the necessary Covid-19 safety precautions, such as mandatory masks and limiting the number of people in the store at one time, some cities are allowing businesses to set up shop outside.

The City of Morgan Hill is encouraging downtown retailers to participate in the weekly “Sidewalk Saturdays” downtown shopping event.

Sidewalk Saturdays is an “outdoor popup retail marketplace along the south sidewalk of East Third Street between Monterey Road and Depot Street,” reads a Sept. 16 letter to downtown Morgan Hill businesses from the city’s Economic Development Director, Edith Ramirez.

The event will occur every Saturday from 10am to 2pm through Dec. 19, weather permitting. Sidewalk Saturdays allows non-food retailers an opportunity to showcase and sell their products, while at the same time creating a “street activation” that will hopefully attract visitors and encourage them to stay in the city’s downtown for longer than they otherwise would, according to Ramirez.

The program is part of the city’s “Buy Local” campaign, which encourages residents to support locally owned businesses. Vendors located downtown—not just on Third Street—are encouraged to participate in Sidewalk Saturdays by using their storefront sidewalks to attract visitors with displays and decorations.

Downtown Hollister and San Juan Bautista have established “parklets.”

The Hollister City Council unanimously approved a parklet program on Oct. 19 that assisted businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic and transformed most of the main strip of San Benito Street into a one-way traffic flow.

The parklet program provided funding to support local businesses in weatherizing their outdoor dining or retail space, offering safe outdoor options as they navigate through the pandemic, according to San Benito County officials.

San Benito Bene, 615 San Benito St. in downtown Hollister, is a one-stop-shop for everything local, offering products such as olive oils, pottery, soaps and spices from area businesses and artisans.

The shop is also debuting its new online shopping experience at benegiftshollister.com, where customers can order on the website and either pick up in store or have their purchases shipped to them.

Owner Kathina Szeto said the store also offers curbside pickup.

“We want to be able to serve in the most convenient way for our customers,” she said.

Szeto said she is excited about the parklets along the downtown corridor.

She mentioned that she’s always had support from some of Hollister’s longtime residents, especially those who remember what it was like to have a bustling downtown. But she believes the new transformation on the main strip can bring back that hometown feeling once again, allowing the younger generation to experience it for themselves.

“The diverse local businesses create a wonderful neighborhood feel,” Szeto said.

The benefits to shopping locally are numerous, as she points out.

“It produces a community identity,” she said. “It gives people a place to socialize and walk around. It’s healthy to get in a little bit of aerobics and window shop. It creates local jobs, it increases the tax base, it gives young people the idea of entrepreneurship.”