Shifting Perspective on the Local Holiday Economy

Somehow we’ve reached that magical time of year again. For many of us, ‘Christmas in July’ seems like just yesterday; but the holiday season proper is upon us and is by all accounts shaping up to be a diversely profitable year for our region and throughout the state. How we talk about ways to measure that success might need some tweaking as more and more shoppers become interested in the small business/buy local movement that’s pulsing through the area. Sure, data and dollar signs are the most traditional method of measuring the retail success of the holiday season, but they don’t tell the whole story, especially in the eyes of many small business owners.
Just the facts
Before we get into expanding our minds, however, let’s take a look at the more traditional facts and figures. Tom Scott, Senior Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Michigan Retailers Association, reports that holiday shopping is off to a good start, with recent monthly surveys showing 77% of MRA members reporting the Friday after Thanksgiving being “as good or better than last year.” More good news: 83% reported that the entire weekend was as good or better than last year. This follows a general upward trend in Michigan, with September 2011 being a particularly banner month showing 100% of retailers reporting as good or better performance than in the year previous.
Of the buy local/small business promotions (i.e. Small Business Saturday, as developed by American Express), Scott said, “56% said they thought the promotions helped their business in general and 13% said the promotions help their business a lot.” Michigan Retailers Association represents over 5,000 members throughout the state, both large and small, and speaks for Michigan’s retail industry on the whole. But Scott mentions, “Lansing’s numbers have been as good, if not better than most other areas of the state. I think that has to do with the auto industry making a strong comeback after confidence was built back up.”
Hiring trends across the state are experiencing normal increases; Scott adds that “businesses are generally pretty cautious about adding employees.”
Seasonal vs. Seasoned
The hiring of seasonal employees is just one of the ways smaller businesses differ from your typical larger retailers. “Our clientele depend on knowledgeable, familiar faces,” says Summer Schriner, proprietor of Grace Boutique in Old Town. Pair that crucial concept with an already solid staff who are happy and willing to pick up holiday hours, and you don’t see small businesses in demand for new holiday hires.
Aura Ozburn, proprietor of Old Town’s October Moon, agrees. “ We pride ourselves in the relationships we’re able to form with our customers. Those relationships are fostered by thoroughly trained staff; I train people for one to two months, easy, and more often upward of six months.” Cultivating the kind of staff and experience both Schriner and Ozburn provide takes time, something the traditional holiday season doesn’t quite provide. 
So, the usual question of “how many seasonal employees do you have?” isn’t part of the small business puzzle.
Black Friday… and Saturday and Sunday and Monday…
“How was your Black Friday?” is another question many small business owners have a non-conventional time of answering. 
While it was relatively quiet at the Lansing Art Gallery on November 25th, on November 17th it was anything but. “We quadrupled attendance and sales over last year at our annual Holiday Art Market,” says Lansing Art Gallery Executive Director Catherine Babcock. “After growing by 2,000 square feet, we’re excited to welcome 150 total artists, with 20 brand new artists not seen at the Gallery before.”
Ozburn says, “It’s silly to measure the day to day. We look at the week, the month, the year, focusing on the whole. Doing otherwise indicates a lack of building on the relationships and connections we work hard throughout the rest of the year to establish.”
Both Schriner and Ozburn love to see the new faces that visit Old Town during a typical Black Friday, but emphasize the importance of how supporting small business is defined. “Unfortunately, simply saying ‘I support small/local businesses just isn’t enough,” says Schriner, “The importance lies in, quite frankly, putting your money where your mouth is.”
Schriner cites The 3/50 Project as a great tool for people to take action by. The concept is for financially able residents to spend $50 at three different locally owned brick and mortar shops in their city. According to the 3/50 website “For every $100 spent in locally owned independent stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures. If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 stays here. Spend it online and nothing comes home.”
How do you measure a year in the life?
If we’re not talking dollars and cents or the number of people coming through the door, then what is the relevant discussion to have?
“The true value the business sees is through the people who develop relationships and loyalties. That people get to know the products and services that are valued with each merchant,” says Cathleen Edgerly, Communications and Marketing Manager for Downtown Lansing, Inc. “We definitely see great business during the holidays and see the value in special deals; but we’re offering a total experience when you’re here: shopping, eating, entertainment, holiday party booking, holiday activities, etc.” Not all of that can be measured in dollars.
Old Town businesses often measure their success when existing customers and clients refer their friends and family to their stores.
“Our traffic tends to slow down during the holidays,” says Eric Jenks, Owner and Artist at Fish Ladder Tattoo, “but gift certificate business picks up. Often, it’s former clients who want to give the gift of a unique experience by someone they trust.”  While not part of the traditional holiday economic dialogue, it’s certainly an indication of growth.

Veronica Gracia-Wing is a freelance writer for Capital Gains

Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Downtown Lansing shoppers

Katie WittenauerAura Ozburn, proprietor of Old Town’s October Moon

October Moon dressed up for the Holidays

Summer Schriner at Grace

Downtown Holiday decorations

Lansing Art Gallery sale signage

Lansing Art Gallery Holiday sales displays

Eric Jenks at Fish Ladder Tattoo

Photos © Dave Trumpie
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