To the Editor:
For most of my adult life, I have written commentaries this time of year encouraging people to buy local and shop small. Here I go again… penning a reminder to shop local and patronize our community businesses. But this season feels different. We find ourselves in a situation unlike any other we’ve ever experienced and the stakes for our community businesses cannot be higher.
Our small local businesses enter this holiday season after weathering eight (8) months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forced to close for the entire spring and part of the summer, our community businesses have suffered unimagined financial hardship. During the April to June timeframe, foot traffic in downtown Ithaca dropped 85% from the previous year. Many businesses were closed entirely for spring and gradually reopened in summer, only to find the foot traffic in July- September still down 50%.
While many of us freely patronized our large grocery stores and found a reason to shop at our area’s national big box home goods and hardware stores, we struggled to make our way to our smaller community businesses. As this trend became clearer in late spring, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, and the City of Ithaca launched “The Ithaca Promise” campaign, designed to remind residents that our community businesses were as safe and as prepared as any national chain for our patronage. That pledge remains in effect today and the record of business-related COVID-19 cases in our community supports this assertion.
Eight months without strong sales, as well as in some months no sales, has taken a heavy toll on the financial condition of our community businesses. Reserves have been depleted. Those businesses fortunate enough to have been awarded PPP funding has long since drained that resource, helping to keep our neighbors and friends gainfully employed. Today, most community businesses have little or no financial reserves remaining. Another shutdown will devastate them. A weak holiday season could do the same.
There are over 200 consumer-oriented small businesses in our downtown; over 1,000 community-wide. These businesses employ thousands of area residents and contribute mightily to our local tax base and economy. These businesses are disproportionately generous to their home community… they contribute to area nonprofits, causes, schools, and programs. They are owned and managed by people who live here, who know and revere our community. They believe in Ithaca — their owners invested in Ithaca’s promise and Ithaca’s people.
Yet, today they face another growing trend that has gained momentum during this pandemic — the allure of online shopping. Over the past decade, national online sales grew approximately 1% year over year. By 2020, online sales accounted for roughly 18% of all national retail sales. During the pandemic, this percent mushroomed to 28% of all national sales and shows no sign of stopping its climb. While community businesses suffered and hunkered down hoping to weather this pandemic assault, the mega national and international online stores grew their profits substantially. The merchandising prowess of the Amazon and other online titans has been on full display.
To their credit, small businesses here in Ithaca have responded. In Downtown, the DIA estimates that fewer than 20% of Downtown businesses had online shopping capability prior to March 2020. Today, that number is now around 50%. Our local businesses have gainfully tried to establish an online presence—to attract the consumer who is now more comfortable buying from a computer or smartphone than taking a trip to a local small business. But, an online presence is only one part of the selling equation; we consumers need to know and remember that these local online opportunities exist and be able to find them whenever we want to shop or dine.
This brings me back to my concern about small businesses in December 2020. These folks have weathered the toughest economic conditions local businesses have had to face in generations. Those that have survived (and alas some have not) are teetering on the edge. Today and this season more than at any time I can recall, they need our love, our support, and our patronage. I implore you—don’t be the person that looks around in 2021 and wonders what happened to that cute local shop or special restaurant that was overlooked during the holiday season. As part of your holiday preparations, make a resolution to shop local and buy from our community businesses. They need you now.
Our businesses cannot rely on help from the Federal government; they cannot rely on financial aid from our State government. Our County and City governments are running low on money themselves. If we are to preserve and keep our community businesses it falls to us, the residents of Ithaca, Tompkins County, and surrounding towns to think about our downtown and community businesses and make a concerted effort to patronize them this holiday season. Local and small have never been more important concepts and more in need of our support.
Downtown Ithaca Alliance Executive Director