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Shop Outside the Box

With less than two weeks until the holiday, shopping centers and strip malls are sure to be teeming with consumers scurrying to knock those last few people off their gift lists.

While many have resigned themselves to facing heavy traffic, limited parking, long lines, and other anxious shoppers during the busy retail season, a movement is afoot to reduce the stress of holiday shopping – perhaps even make it a pleasurable experience – while pumping money into the local economy.

It's called neighborhood shopping and it’s catching on, according to one local retailer in the central city.

“I hear a lot of people saying their goal for this year is to do all of their Christmas shopping locally,” said Amy Ruis, who owns Art of The Table on Wealthy Street in southeast Grand Rapids. Efforts by neighborhood business advocates and retailers to divert traffic from the big box stores to the “mom and pop” shops seem to be working, according to Ruis.

So far, she says, business this year is better than it was at this time last year.

A Group Effort
Several initiatives have contributed to the success of neighborhood retailers like Ruis. It has become tradition, for example, in the stores along East Fulton Street, Wealthy Street, East Hills, and Eastown – collectively known as Uptown – to host holiday events where businesses stay open later and entice shoppers with giveaways, hors d’oeuvres, carolers, and even a trolley to transport visitors from the parking lot to the stores.

Many neighborhood shopping districts extend their hours during the season. Collaboration among shop owners and between various shopping districts around the city has brought increased traffic. Most notably, perhaps, was a media campaign sponsored by the Neighborhood Business Alliance that urges consumers to “Shop Outside The Box.”

“You’ve got to educate the public,” said Ben Perrin, who owns Mercury Head Gallery near Fulton Street and Diamond Avenue on the city’s southeast side, “and that was a great campaign. It helped pound the whole local thing home.”

The Virtues of Venturing Close to Home
Kari Bliss is interim director of Local First, a nonprofit organization that touts the merits of keeping money local. Bliss cites many compelling reasons, pragmatic and philosophical, that shoppers should head to local stores.

“One of the things I love so much about the neighborhood shops is the character they bring," said Bliss, a long-time city resident. "If we don’t make an effort to support local retailers, they’re going to go away, and then what are our neighborhood going to look like?”

A major Local First premise holds that, for every $100 spent at a locally-owned business, $73 stays in the area, compared to $43 of every $100 spent at a non-local business. Signs in front of art and jewelry at Ben Perrin’s store even let shoppers know where the goods are made, whether in Grand Rapids, Leelanau, or California.

Locally-made items are perhaps the most important reasons to shop local, according to Amy Ruis. She estimates that roughly 30 percent of the goods she offers – which include tableware, cookbooks, décor, miscellaneous kitchen wares, cards, and food and drink for entertaining – are made locally in Michigan. Her stock includes small farm cheeses and an assortment of liquid libations from batch breweries.

“It’s made in the U.S., and that makes me feel a lot better about selling it,” she said.

So…What’s in it for Me?
While that sounds great on paper, consumers want the most bang for their buck at this high-spending time. How can little stores compete with the falling prices and truckload sales advertised in the Sunday papers? Kari Bliss said the idea that small stores mean higher prices is a common fallacy, especially after tallying travel expenses to get to and from the suburban mega stores.

Also, the unique offerings at smaller stores means distinctive gifts that likely won’t have to be returned because a recipient got more than one.

What's more, the neighborhood shopping trip is not only a matter of shopping – it’s an experience. Amy Ruis said people who venture into her neck of the woods find themselves learning new things about their city.

“They are surprised that they can park on the city street in front of the store,” she said.

If there are parking meters in these zones, they typically command a modest 25-cent per hour fee rather than the steeper rates found downtown. The City of Grand Rapids also is offering 60 minutes of free parking to holiday shoppers. Coupons are good for four city ramps from now until the end of the year, and can be downloaded at www.downtowngr.org. The site also has a business directory that includes retailers and restaurants.

While there is no food court, per se, the neighborhood shopper will discover eateries boasting vegetarian faire, Ethiopian cuisine, homemade granola, and Eggs Benedict, to name a few choices, nestled in between neighborhood shops.

Finally, Ruis and Perrin both list friendly and personal service as one of the best reasons to shop locally. The door to Mercury Head, for instance, remained unlocked last week after the posted closing time. Perrin says that while small local stores can’t stay open 24-hours a day, you’ll never hear him asking people to bring their final purchases to the counter 20 minutes before closing time. Ruis offered a similar contrast.

“You won’t find a $9.99 CD player here,” she said. “No one is busting down my door.”

What you will find, she says, is a “casual, fun shopping experience.”

There is an added bonus this Sunday, December 17: As a way of saying, “Thanks for shopping, eating and thinking local,” several businesses are sponsoring two free movies this weekend at Wealthy Theatre, 1130 Wealthy St., SE. It’s A Wonderful Life starts at 2 p.m. and A Christmas Story begins at 5 p.m. Doors open at 1:30 p.m.

Click here for a listing of shops located within the area’s neighborhood business districts compiled by the Neighborhood Business Alliance Website. For shops and galleries in the Local First network, click here.

Photographs:

Art of the Table owner Amy Ruis

A sampling of Michigan made products at Art of the Table

Ben Perrin of Mercury Head Gallery

"Tom" the gallery cat cashes out customers at Mercury Head

Amazing displays are part of Art of the Table

Photographs Copyright Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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