If anyone needed any proof concerning the importance of buying local to the regional economy, Michelle Wirth said, it came during the pandemic.
As consumers were forced to shop from their computers, except for what they could find at the supermarket or the big-box stores allowed to stay open, they resorted to Amazon and, for the most part, the national brands with which they were familiar.
As a result, a good number of smaller retailers were just not able to carry on and had to close their doors, putting some people out of work as they did so. Many of those storefronts are still vacant, impacting vibrancy on Main Street — and many other streets as well. Meanwhile, the jobs created by those stores, and the local spending generated by them — on everything from marketing to signs; electricity to office supplies — have been lost.
“During COVID, all of us were relying on online shopping more than ever before — we were relying on Instacart or some of the big names, Amazon, Nordstrom’s, L.L. Bean, Walmart … and when we could finally raise our heads and we were comfortable leaving our houses and driving around the neighborhood, I noticed that a lot of the stores that I had frequented prior to COVID were closed or closing,” said Wirth, who said this harsh reality was one of many factors that led her to launch Feel Good Shop Local, or FGSL, as it’s called, an online e-commerce platform that makes it easier for area residents and businesses to find local retailers, and much easier to do business with them.
In a word, the site — feelgoodshoplocal.com — ‘connects’ consumers with local retailers, said Wirth, adding that these connections benefit consumers, retailers, and communities alike.
“The vitality of our local communities is important. How do you ensure the vitality of our local communities? By supporting our local neighbors, the local stores, things that are happening in our backyard.”
There are now more than 20 businesses on the site, including Lenny Underwood’s Upscale Socks; High Five Books in Florence; Hallie’s Comet Fine Jewelry; Feather & Bloom, a florist, plant, and gift shop in Suffield, Conn.; Relax.Rinse.Repeat, a Westfield-based provider of organic health and beauty products; and many others. Upon visiting a participating shop, one can learn about it, see products, read reviews, and — this is the ultimate goal — place orders (more on all this later).
The Feel Good Shop Local site is one of the listings in our annual Buy Local Holiday Gift Guide, which includes a lengthy list of gift suggestions and places to find them starting on page XX. Wirth and others we spoke with said that the holidays are a good time — although any time is a good time — to remind people of the importance of shopping locally for all those reasons mentioned above.
In many ways, that message is resonating, said Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of Placemaking at the Mill District in North Amherst, a mixed-use community that now features more than 130 housing units and an eclectic array of small shops. She noted that shopping with local retailers has become a priority for some, and even a political statement for others.
“People really find that, for them, shopping locally is meaningful beyond just the fact that it’s nice to go in and touch something and connect with someone,” she said. “They also feel a point of pride shopping locally, giving a gift that has a story they heard right from the artist that made it.
“It becomes this sense that people are part of the recovery,” Rechtschaffen went on. “And I think that this is both real and important. At places like this, people are able to come out and shop and meet the store owner, meet the people working there, meet people making things … it’s just a nicer experience and gives everyone a sense of recovery and reclaiming things.”
Melissa Peavay, marketing manager for Grove Real Estate, owner of the Longmeadow Shops, agreed. She said shopping local has, indeed, become a priority for many consumers, especially after the lessons — and the casualties — of the pandemic.
But she noted that ‘shopping local’ is a broad term. It means buying from local vendors, obviously, she said, but it also means buying from a local outlet of a national chain, one that is providing jobs and contributing to the vibrancy of a downtown, a mall, a shopping plaza (like the Longmeadow Shops), or a community.
“Shopping with people who own their own business and live locally is wildly important,” she said. “But it’s very important to come out and shop local, even if it’s a national chain; it’s local people who work at these stores.”
The Going Rate
There are two bathrooms in the General Store at the Mill District. One, very popular with children, features a jungle motif. The other one? Well, it features one-way glass on the entire wall facing the parking lot. Those using it can see out, but no one can see in.
“People really find that, for them, shopping locally is meaningful beyond just the fact that it’s nice to go in and touch something and connect with someone. They also feel a point of pride shopping locally, giving a gift that has a story they heard right from the artist that made it. It becomes this sense that people are part of the recovery.”
“Still, it can a little disconcerting or unnerving at first, but overall, it’s different, and it’s fun,” said Shauna Wallace, interim manager of the store, adding that the bathroom, said to be one of just a handful in the country with such one-way glass (the others are in tourist spots), has become a talking point. There’s even a sign on the property directing visitors to it that says “you have to go!”
While people might use this bathroom while visiting the store, and others at the Mill District, it is not the reason they go there, said Rechtschaffen, adding that their primary motivation is to find a unique mix of stores and shop locally. And the General Store provides maybe the best example of this.
It features thousands of different items, almost all of them from local vendors and artists: hand-made quilts from Night Sky Quilts in Amherst, maple syrup from Boyden Bothers Maple Syrup in Conway, dog treats from Berkshire Dog in Lanesboro, reclaimed cutting boards from Firefly Hollow in Leverett, local sauces and grocery items from the Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland … the list goes on.
As noted earlier, the General Store is just one of many small, locally owned shops in the Mill District. Others include the Closet, which offers vintage and ‘new to you’ clothing; Graze Craze, which offers customizable charcuterie boards and catering; the Lift Salon; Provisions, the Mill District Local Art Gallery; and many others. Collectively, they provide opportunities for people to find what they’re looking for, locate some unique gifts, and shop local in one spot.
It was this same objective that motivated Wirth to create the Feel Good Shop Local platform, which was sparked by the reality that local artists and retailers are simply not as visible as they would like to be.
“One of the reasons some people don’t shop local is because it’s hard — it’s time-consuming, especially if you’re a newcomer to the area, to find these places,” she said. “If you Google items, they don’t show up; if you Google ‘black sweater near me,’ you get the big-box stores, not the local stores. It’s a connection issue.”
Feel Good Shop Local was created to forge connections and enable people to shop at those stores when it’s convenient for them.
“As a mother of four, I’m shopping early in the morning and late at night, and, unfortunately, our local stores are not open at those hours,” Wirth said, adding that many people are similarly constrained by time.
But convenience is only part of the equation. The platform, which was launched during the Big E and is focused largely on gift giving, enables people to shop by recipient (everything from family members to pets; from teachers to co-workers), price, occasion, interest (from travel to wellness to pets — again), and values, everything from women-owned to BIPOC to ‘sustainable practices.’
Wirth considers the platform a classic win-win, or win-win-win, because it benefits consumers, local shops and artists, and communities across the region.
“The vitality of our local communities is important,” she said. “How do you ensure the vitality of our local communities? By supporting our local neighbors, the local stores, things that are happening in our backyard.”
As noted, 25 stores now participate on the platform, with another 25 or 30 in the pipeline, and as the holidays approach, Wirth expects interest in the site to rise. Participating businesses pay a 15% commission on each sale to FGSH, a lower rate than most other sites of this type.
The Mill District General Store is one of those businesses. Click on that site, and one can find a few dozen different items with the store’s own label, including spicy pickles, cracked peppercorn dressing, jams, salsa, and ‘Moonshine Barbecue Sauce.’
Wirth said the platform is essentially just getting started and is still “learning and growing.” She expects that as word of mouth spreads about its ability to make connections and generate sales, it will draw more local shops and artisans.
“The intention behind this is to create community — a community of sellers and a community of like-minded shoppers that are supporting these sellers in a way that is convenient for everyone.”
Meanwhile, with the holidays just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the season, which is increasingly clouded by questions about the economy, recession, inflation, and the impact of all that on spending.
Amid these concerns, there is, as noted earlier, growing encouragement of efforts to shop local and support businesses looking to make a full recovery from the pandemic.
Peavay said 2020 and 2021 were very difficult times for most all retailers, and some, as Wirth noted, were not able to successfully pivot and navigate their way through the whitewater.
The Longmeadow Shops saw a few casualties, she said, adding quickly that these vacancies have been filled, and the outdoor shopping plaza is now fully leased.
It features several locally owned stores, including Caren & Company, a clothing store; In Chic Shoenique, a merger of two stores, In Chic and Shoenique; Batch Ice Cream; Delaney’s Market; Max Burger; Posto; and the Shot Shop, a salon and spa.
In addition, it features a number of national chains, from J.Crew to Ann Taylor to the Gap, that provide jobs and contribute to the overall vibrancy of the complex and the town itself.
“If people don’t come out and stroll our sidewalks and shop in our stores, those national chains will leave,” Peavay said. “And then, people are disappointed; you always hear after someone closes, ‘I loved that store … why did it close?’ It’s super important to shop locally owned stores and to shop local, at the Longmeadow Shops or any shopping center, if you find that shopping center convenient.”
There’s a ticker of sorts on the Feel Good Shop Local Site. It keeps a running track of the money spent at participating businesses through the site, under the header ‘Money Invested in the Local Economy.’
At present, that number is still in the five digits as the site continues to build visibility and a presence across the region. In time, it will go much higher, said Wirth, adding that, beyond this number, the site is creating those all-important connections that make it much easier for consumers to shop local first.
When they do, it is truly a win-win-win scenario.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]