Shop local this holiday season, and every day

I was driving from downtown the other day and noticed a billboard for a new company called Presto Fresh. It is a full-service grocery delivery company working with Zagara's Marketplace—for more than 75 years a locally owned and operated neighborhood grocery store. The owner, John Zagara, is a businessman whom I respect and appreciate for what he gives back to the community. John has always tried to stay one step ahead of the ever more difficult game of being successful in business.

What struck me is that this new business of home delivery of groceries is not just for shut-ins, but also for people who don't have the time to shop. We're all busy. Somehow we have lost our time-management skills. Some don't take time to even sit down and have dinner with their family. To me, this started the degradation of the family unit. No more time to talk about school, art, politics or sports because we are too busy.

The bigger picture is that we can now do everything from our computers or smart phones and never have to leave the "comforts" of our homes. Socialization and even talking to someone has been replaced by texting. One can easily get swallowed up by it.

This piece is not about grocery stores per se, it is about operating an independent business in an increasingly difficult market. I have talked to many retail store owners in Cleveland Heights and in other cities around the country. Most, if not all, are crying the blues. All are seasoned souls who have been in business for more than 20 years. We have watched hard costs such as rent, insurance, and the cost of goods soar, while revenues have decreased. You don't have to have a Ph.D. in economics to see that this is dangerous territory.

Further, we have had to weather a "down economy" for five-plus years. Compound these negative factors with competition from Big Box stores and we have a recipe for failure. In the words of the late night Ronco commercial—“But wait, there's more." The "more" is the Internet, which has become the elephant in the room that many of us have feared or ignored up until now. The Internet for commerce has become incredibly easy for the public to access. Companies offering low prices and free shipping (on returns, too) have bombarded the marketplace. Cavernous warehouses that pay employees low wages and offer no benefits are putting the big kibosh on mom-and-pop stores.

We can't compete on pricing because of the behemoth buying power of these mega businesses. Those of us in retail have all heard that we need to fight back with customer service and knowledge. Yet, our pricing model has been destroyed by the "dark side" and the "Grouponization" expectation of the buying public.

The simple fact is, fewer people are leaving the comforts of their homes and just aren't going out shopping anymore. The experience of picking up an item to look at, try on, and feel has increasingly become not-the-norm for the next generation. The next generation is spending bucks at bars and restaurants. It would be very scary if we could eat and drink online and not at our local pub. The loyalty to the neighborhood store has fallen to the wayside. This is what troubles me the most.

Brick-and-mortar stores are essential to commercial districts. We are the fabric of our neighborhoods. We employ local people. We use local printers and professional services such as accountants, insurance brokers and lawyers. When a brick-and-mortar store closes, it affects everyone. Mom-and-pops are the ones that give items or gift certificates to countless charities and local organizations. We pay taxes and we improve the quality of life in our community.

Recently, there has been grumbling among store owners over the proliferation of pop-up stores and venues. I personally like the creativity and vibe of these. Many of the vendors are local artisans whom I support. Sadly, national chains of Halloween pop-up stores killed independently owned costume shops here in town. However, along with traditional holiday gift shows, they adversely affect stores that remain open all year. The competition for the almighty dollar has never been tougher.

Cleveland Heights businesses have felt the pain over postings by "trolls" on several media sites. The bad-mouthing only fuels the fire. Perceived or real, the buying public outside of our wonderful community of Cleveland Heights is just not visiting us like they used to. Ask any business owner about the lack of traffic in our districts and they will tell you that numbers are down.

So, what can we do? I do know that it would help if you talked to your kids, your relatives, and your neighbors about the importance of SHOPPING LOCAL. Every little bit helps. It is about educating the public. The next time you go on Amazon to buy a book, give Mac's Backs a call or any other local independent bookstore. Try on clothes or jewelry at City Buddha or Blush instead of buying out of a catalog. The list goes on and on.

Retail stores should be busy, not just on Record Store Day and Small Business Saturday. Many of us have had to change our original business models to include a website, e-commerce and social media. We all need to be more flexible. I wish that our businesses could be sustainable with traditional in-store customers. Shop Local. Happy Healthy Holidays.

Steve Presser

Steve Presser is the owner of Big Fun, and a resident of Cleveland Heights.

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Volume 7, Issue 12, Posted 11:14 AM, 11.25.2014