Supporting Small Businesses

(Note: This post was originally written several years ago) Last week was a rough week. It's always difficult to get back on track after a big event like DFW Fiber Fest, but those of us in the DFW area were hit with a big announcement: the much-beloved LYS The Knitting Fairy has decided to close. I talked about this on my podcast, including specific ways we can all help small businesses that we love, and I wanted to talk about that here as well.

The most obvious way to support small businesses is to make purchases at those businesses. But I know there are a lot of factors that go into your decision to buy something, not least of which is budget. So I'm going to first address the purchasing side of supporting small businesses and then I'm going to talk about other ways you can support small businesses.

Fair warning: I'm going to get on a soap box for a bit. I'm sorry if you feel lectured to, but I think we need to hear this. And I include myself in that. I'm not perfect, and there are things I can do much better to help support small businesses. I'm going to save this email and reread it myself every so often so I can remember how important this is.

Getting a Good Deal

I'm not going to lie: I love getting a good deal and saving money on something. And in many ways, our society is set up to make competition on price be one of the main ways businesses try to make sales. But that's not always possible for every business. For one reason or another, sometimes businesses have to charge more for an item. (Sometimes this is due to a larger business getting volume discounts because they can purchase a much larger quantity of an item--such as yarn--than a small local shop. Sometimes it's because the small local shop has higher overhead--rent, utilities, insurance, etc.--than a web-based store.)

When you make purchasing decisions based solely on price, that can have a lot of repercussions to a small business such as a local yarn shop. Let's say a shop has a particular skein of yarn priced at $20 whereas with an online shop, you can get the same skein for $19. It's tempting to save that dollar per skein, especially if you are doing a larger project and need to buy a lot of skeins.

But if you buy from the online shop rather that your local shop, that local shop (where perhaps you first saw the yarn and decided it was perfect) gets nothing from your visit and online purchase. Instead, the yarn that you could have bought stays on the shelf, taking up space and shop dollars. So instead of the yarn shop being able to make room on a shelf and getting some money, both of which could be used to get new yarn (and thus move the inventory and keep bringing in new things for you), the yarn just sits there until someone finally decides to buy it.

In-Person Help/Community

One of the major benefits of a local shop (besides being able to see the yarn and supplies in person) is the people, both the ones who work in the shop and the ones who sit around and knit/crochet/spin. By spending that extra dollar per skein for your project, when you have trouble with your project and need help, most shops are very happy to help you. That type of help doesn't come from the online shop such as Amazon.

And what about being able to show up at a shop and just sit around with like-minded fiber folks and work on your craft and chat? Have you heard about the concept of a "third place"? Basically, most of us have two major places where we spend a lot of time: home and work/school. The third place is where we go to be with "our people," those with whom we share common interests and where we spend another good chunk of our time. And I know the LYS is a third place for many of us if we are fortunate to have a local shop in our area.

But It's Not Free

But the third place isn't a free place. If you find yourself spending a lot of time at a place but you buy something from that place only a few times (let's say once out of every fifth visit), then you're quite honestly taking advantage of that space. The owner of that shop is taking on all the financial parts of the space and you're getting all the benefits. (I know this might sound a little harsh, but I do think it's something important for us to consider.)

My weekly knitting group meets at a Starbucks. Although I don't think that Starbucks is going to go out of business if I don't buy a drink each week when we meet, I still feel like I need to buy one each time I'm there. I feel guilty sitting there if I haven't bought anything, even if I have bought something every week for the past year. Should we feel differently about a small business? It seems like we sometimes do. (And I'm including myself in this as well; I'm just as guilty of going to a small business and spending time there without making a purchase.)

But Budget! And Giant Stash!

Right now you might be thinking that you just don't have it in your budget to make a purchase every time you walk through the door of a small business. Or maybe you're thinking that your yarn stash is already pretty insane and you couldn't imagine what it would look like if you bought a skein of yarn every time you walked into a yarn shop.

I get that. We all have budgets and most of us couldn't afford to do that every time, and most of us have stashes that we'll never be able to knit/crochet all the way through. But think about it. Maybe there's a smaller or non-yarn purchase you can make. Or at least try to make a purchase more often than not. If you've been going to a shop for weeks and realize that it's been months since your last purchase, that's honestly a problem. And we need to do better.

Other Ways to Help

One of the hardest parts of running a small business is getting the word out about your business/getting new people to come to the shop (or reminding people who visited once before to come back). So if there's a small business that you love, become a business evangelist.

Tell everyone who might be interested in that shop about it. Tell them multiple times and in multiple ways. Get a stack of the shop's business cards and pass them out to other people. Write about your visits on Facebook, take a picture of the shop and/or what you bought and post it on Instagram. Spread the word. That is the most important thing you can do for a shop besides make purchases. Word-of-mouth marketing is not just a buzz word; it's a way of life for small businesses.

Post reviews on various platforms, such as Yelp or Facebook. Make sure your review has specifics. (Don't just say "this is my favorite shop ever"; say something like, "I love this shop because every time I go in I feel completely welcomed. I know that the shop will have just the yarn that I need for my project or will be able to order it for me." Perhaps share a specific example. The more details you can give in your review, the more valuable it is.

Social Media - The Value of Comments

Social media marketing is big for small businesses. Despite how you might feel about Facebook, it's an important platform for small businesses. For yarn shops, Instagram with its photo-heavy stream, is perfect for showing off the awesome things you can get at a shop and what you make with it. So make sure to post things on social media platforms and be sure to tag the shop when you do.

Follow your favorite small businesses on social media, and then make sure to interact with their postings. This interaction ("engagement") is extremely important for those platforms that use algorithms to decide what to show in your feed (rather than a chronological feed). Although no one knows the precise metrics for the algorithm, it's pretty clear that those posts and businesses that get the most engagement (interaction) will show up more frequently in both your feed as well as in other people's feed.

Here's a big tip: it's really easy, say, on Instagram, to quickly scroll through your feed and double tap the pictures to like them. And although liking a post is better than just passing it by, just tapping the heart isn't quite enough to really make a full impact. What do you need to do? Comment. Make comments on posts, whatever platform you are on. One comment is worth 100 likes (okay, the math may not be exact but the idea is there).

If you want to make a huge impact on a small business's social media presence (which hopefully leads to new people finding them and results in more sales, which helps the business keep going), start commenting on their posts. And make the comment at least four words long. Don't just write "beautiful" and "gorgeous" on posts; it's better than no comment, but writing "That shawl is beautiful" doesn't add very much time but does add to the engagement level. (Side note to small business owners: Reply to every comment you receive. Social media is just that--social. If someone takes the time to comment on your post, you need to take the time to respond.)

Action Steps

So, out of all of the above, I have three action steps for you:
1. Make a purchase from your favorite small businesses whenever possible.
2. Tell everyone about your favorite small businesses.
3. Take a few extra moments on social media to write comments on the posts from small businesses you love.

This may not save every small business (and some businesses close due to other factors), but wouldn't you like to know you've done everything possible to help those businesses that you love?