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* I wrote this post last week and realized I didn’t have room for it so I’m sharing it today.  I want to note that it starts on one tangent and ends on another (sort of).  I thought about changing it but I like it.  It makes some good points.  In the end, all that matters is that you, the reader, take time to appreciate your small businesses.

We’ve all encountered them – rude shoppers. I thought they were rare and of a certain personality, until I opened a store. I’d been dealing with shoppers for ages at craft fairs but the majority of my encounters were pleasant. You open a store front and they seem to come out of the woodwork. I’ve realized that maybe people don’t know they are offensive. Maybe we need a tutorial on how not to be a jerk when shopping. Where’s Miss Manners when you need her? Okay so her time has passed so I thought I’d take it on myself to talk about things not to do when you are shopping.

With this holiday season, I hope you are shopping local. Chain stores don’t care if you are polite or complain – you are a drop in the bucket but your local shopkeepers often take these things personally. Now we owned an art/thrift store so I thought some of these behaviors were because we had items that were secondhand. I have a friend who had a retail store – come to find out these things happened to her.

  1. If you don’t like the price – shut up. Don’t complain loudly how you can buy xyz at Walmart for half the price. Don’t offer to pay them less for the item. It’s insulting. For our store, many items we purchased and sold for twice the price. While that seems like a horrible markup – we had bills to pay. In the year that we were in business, not a penny went in our pocket. All our income went to rent, utilities and inventory. We had made connections to other local businesses to get the bulk of our inventory (auction houses mostly). We had to pay them enough so their business could survive while still getting it low enough so our prices remained reasonable. Stores like Walmart buy in a bulk amount that most small businesses can’t even begin to compete with. For example, there was an item I purchased to add to gift sets when I first started my soap business. I couldn’t buy it wholesale for less than I could buy it at Walmart. With the close of our store, we have a lot of inventory we want to sell. We still have bills to pay and it seems like new ones crop up (remember our store is not only closed but has been for months). I put up items on a local garage sale website. One of these items consisted of three vintage locks for $5 each. Now we do our research when we list anything of value so we know that $5 is a conservative price (at the low end of what they are selling for online). The evening after I listed the item, a woman asked me if I would take $5 for all three. Excuse me – that’s insulting in ways I can’t even begin to express. Anything less than half is ridiculous. Offering half is insulting. We don’t mind when people offer slightly less, especially if the item has been listed for a while. Just last night we gave a woman a deal because she didn’t have the right change. She had come for one item and saw another. She ended up buying three items for $9 instead of $12. We didn’t want to make change and one of the items I had bumped the price up on the garage sale site because occasionally I want something where I can give a discount. Had I listed them for the prices we had them in the store, her total would have been $9 so no insult. The bartering had become so bad in the store that we raised our prices to accommodate it. If we wanted $10 for an item, we priced it $15. It meant that those who didn’t barter paid more and we hated it.
  2. Follow the instructions. This is something I have noticed with craigslist. It’s getting to the point that I feel like I need to put a disclaimer on every item we list. We ask that people call to set up times to pick up an item. For us, I post the listings because I am on the computer all day at work and it gives me something to do. My husband is at home with the items and has the time to meet people. So in each listing we close with “Please call xyz if interested”. I had to add that because people couldn’t figure out how to contact us. You see, craigslist has an icon you click for contact information. They ask people listing not to put contact information in the body of the listing but most people could not figure out that the notation to call at the bottom of the listing was associated with the phone number that popped up on the contact information. We were getting a ton of emails. When we asked people to call, they stopped contacting us. Come to find out that some people saw call and interpreted text. One woman was actually mad at me for not returning her messages. When my husband finally connected with her, she told him she’d been texting. Makes me want to smack my head against the wall. I know that we are one of the last people on the earth to not have a cell phone or communicate via text. We have a landline which does not accept texts. Silly us. Like all things – read the dang thing and follow the instructions, it makes life so much easier for everyone involved.
  3. Follow through. You wouldn’t believe how many times we have put items on hold for someone who never returned. Same thing is happening with our online listings. Someone calls saying they are interested so we hold the item for them. Then we never hear back from them. It’s inconvenient. It’s okay to tell someone you changed your mind. Businesses understand. It’s frustrating but it happens. People change their mind for a dozen reasons but if a business is holding something for you, they can’t sell it to someone else. You are costing them money. Sometimes, I put together packages and deals for people who never get back to me. That’s a waste of my time. In some cases, it prompts me to do work that I had put off but other times it takes time away from something else that could make us money sooner. It all comes down to survival. Businesses survive when people shop and give them money. Without that money, it’s a very expensive hobby. Families go bankrupt. Small businesses are a sacrifice that most people won’t understand. We worked 6 days a week – eight hours a day. I went to my “day job” at 8 am, worked until 5 then went to the store to help with things until we closed at 7 pm. We gave up Saturdays – every Saturday. We skipped activities because we were exhausted. We worked holidays. We worked after closing to go through inventory. Some Sundays we worked whether it was spending all day at an auction or sorting inventory. My “spare time” was spent doing paperwork or making examples or putting up advertising. It’s the kind of job that takes almost every waking moment and we earned nothing. We went into the kind of debt that hurts because we had a dream we believed in. We loved our community. I have to tell you that being a business owner makes it really hard to believe in the human race.
  4. If you want to save a business, give them your money. You would not believe the amount of unsolicited advice we got from people who had never run a business. Sometimes the advice was exactly what we were doing. One guy came in and said we needed more signage. Okay – our store had four signs and a sandwich board with a great big arrow. How many more did we need? When we pointed them out, he just shrugged like that was all he had to offer. The fact that he didn’t see the signs was exactly the reason why we had so many. We used balloons and whirly gigs to draw attention to our signs. I talked to several people who were just waiting for the right time to come in. Well that time came and went. If you make an effort, you can make a difference. Let me explain something about a small business that I hadn’t thought about before. While a lot of inventory is made by larger companies, much of the money a small business makes goes to the community. We rented from a local community member. We made connections to other local businesses. When we had an event that needed treats, we went to a local bakery or coffee shop. We bought office supplies from a local business. We ordered food from local restaurants. We banked locally. We supported local artists and crafters. We participated in community events to increase our advertising. We advertised with local papers and radio stations. We gave to local charities. The majority of our money remained local. We couldn’t control the non-localness of our utilities but everything else we made an effort to start local before looking at larger companies. When you spend your money at Walmart – they don’t keep it in the community. Yes, they have local employees who shop at their store because it’s convenient. They own their buildings so no local rent. Their inventory comes from a warehouse states away. They don’t even have local control of the building temperature or staffing decisions. All decisions are made by a corporate office that barely knows the community exists. I know that the days they needed more staffing here in our local Walmart, they couldn’t get it because it didn’t fit the national norm. The air conditioning would be on when the outside temperature was 50 degrees because most of the country had warmer conditions. While they give to local charities, they do not support the communities they are in.

While you may think that perhaps I had a bad experience as a shop owner – it’s not like that for everyone, just know that one of my favorite places to visit online is the website for the Botto Bistro (http://www.bottobistro.com/). This is a restaurant in California I have never been to. Stop in and read their FAQs, Village Idiot and Hall of Shame. It’s not a unique situation. Stop in, talk to a local business owner and ask them what do customers do that make them crazy. Be sincere. They may tell you.

One last thing, if a shopkeeper is grumpy, be nice to them. Bring them chocolate or doughnuts (be sure to call and ask if they have food allergies first). They have a very stressful job. Most importantly, spend money there. While large purchases help the most, if every person who came in spent a little money that would help greatly. We figured that $100 in sales every day we were open would have allowed our business to thrive. That’s 10 people spending $10 or 100 people spending $1. We live in a community where the base population is about 35,000, add in students and tourists our population could be as much as 75,000 in a day (maybe more). The percentage of people we needed was miniscule in comparison.

Small businesses are what make the world go round. We forget when the corporations have bright shiny lights and bargains that no one else can compete with. I guarantee that you get so much more supporting locally. It might not feel like it but it’s there. It’s there when they support the schools your children attend. It’s there when they donate to the local shelter or give an organization an amazing discount because they understand the need. It’s there when you have a staff member who knows the product. When they care about your purchase. Stop in at Walmart and ask a customer service person about your latest project and the best way to proceed. I find that most of the time, they can’t even find a product that they carry in the store. It’s not 100% but small business owners know their business. It’s why I only shop the local hardware store when I have a project. Why I made friends with the local art/craft supply store owners (which sadly we no longer have any art/craft supply stores that are locally owned). Oh and when it comes to electronics – I shop locally and avoid Walmart. I buy all our Nooks at the local B&N because there is this lovely lady there who can answer all Nook questions. She’s patient and I’ve never had a problem she couldn’t solve. It makes me sad that B&N decided, recently, to stop selling the Nooks in the stores. That personal service is what sold me on the Nook to begin with.

I know this is lengthy and I appreciate you sticking out this long. I hope it inspires you to shop locally. Pass this along to your friends. I truly believe that the only solution to our economy lies in supporting small businesses. We’ve supported big business long enough and it’s killing us. So stand up and put your money to good use.