I went on a gift-shopping blitz with friends recently. We wanted, in part, to visit local shops. This not only exercises the deep-seated human browsing instinct — developed by distant ancestors over millions of years spent hunting and gathering — but supports local businesses.
For many small, local retailers, the winter holiday season is the shot in the arm that makes up for shopping doldrums at other times of the year. Walking along Government, Herald, Blanshard and Fort streets, or Oak Bay or Goldstream avenues, for example, allows seasonal shoppers to catch up on changes among the storefronts minus the summertime hordes of tourists, as well as to hunt around for unique gifts. Local businesses benefit from B.C. Buy Local Week, which ran Nov. 28 to Dec. 4, but welcome holiday-shopping traffic at any time.
The expedition was also a social occasion. It was a time to catch up with busy friends in the local-authors section of Russell Books, over jars of preserved lemons and antipasti at Charelli’s or among the socks and backpacks at Pacific Trekking.
If buying gifts were the only goal, we could each have sat alone at home and shopped online, have the purchases delivered directly to their intended recipients, with no direct social interaction whatsoever.
Or we could have converged on a friend’s house with our laptops to shop online while nibbling bonbons and having the above-mentioned conversations. (Mental note: Propose this for next year.)
We would have been participating in a growing trend. BMO Financial reports that online shopping by Canadians is rising at a double-digit rate, three times faster than overall retail spending. According to Forester Research, online sales are expected to increase to $40 billion by 2019.
But by limiting ourselves to online purchasing, our ability to support the range of local retailers we ended up purchasing from would have been restricted. For years, the Retail Council of Canada has been encouraging members to offer online shopping, which large, national or North American retailers now do as a matter of course. In fact, two of every three dollars spent online by Canadians go to U.S. retail web giants, according to a late-2015 report by LOCO, the organization behind the B.C. Buy Local campaign. Competition from Internet retailers and the better pricing and terms offered by big competitors are cited as the two biggest challenges B.C.-based retailers face.
Of the B.C. businesses surveyed, 97 per cent had websites and 92 per cent had Facebook pages. However, only 64 per cent of those surveyed had e-stores, which limits shoppers’ locally and regionally sourced options.
It also limits local benefits. Every $1 spent on local goods and with local businesses generates $2.60 of positive downstream impact on local economies through local employment and other benefits. Even if a product is not made locally, it may still be purchased at local independent retailers, which also benefits the community.
LOCO reports that 69 per cent of Canadian consumers surveyed value Canadian ownership when shopping, more than half seek locally made products, and almost the same number prefer to buy from companies based in their province or city. Survey participants also indicated they would spend more money online with local businesses if the businesses offered convenient shipping, e-stores and online stores that are easier to use.
Some B.C. programs provide funding to improve marketing and distribution of local goods, primarily in the agrifood and beverage sector. For example, the province’s Buy Local program promotes sales of food products grown and processed within B.C., with dozens of producers increasing production, and marketing and selling their goods to greater numbers of local grocers and other outlets, including over the Internet.
Under another provincial program, B.C. Liquor Stores promote B.C. wines, and permit each B.C. liquor Store to tailor its selection of microbrewery products to local markets.
Other types of community-based businesses in B.C. might qualify for small loans, grants or wage-subsidy programs to develop and grow their enterprise, including developing e-stores, although finding information can be challenging.
While online-shopping options for local products and stores might be improving, shopping in person still presents an occasion to enjoy local streetscapes and businesses with friends. It’s all in how you frame the experience.