At Vashon Bookshop last week, islander Robin Branstator paused while purchasing two books to talk about why she makes an effort to shop locally.
“I just find that people who have stores on the island have time to chat with me, and they’re knowledgeable about what they have in their store,” she said.
Over the course of the holiday weekend that included Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, Branstator had plenty of company in downtown Vashon as shoppers milled about on the sidewalks and filled island businesses, supporting local merchants — and the wider community — with each purchase.
The benefits of shopping locally have been proven repeatedly and range from building relationships and creating jobs, to supporting the environment and bolstering the local economy. For Vashon, the local economy includes nonprofit services and other community organizations which local businesses frequently support more than large companies typically do.
Indeed, for every $100 spent at a locally-owned business, $68 stays in the community, according to the private research firm Civic Economics. At a local branch of a chain store, that amount decreases to $43, and with online purchases, the number drops to zero.
On Vashon, the Chamber of Commerce recently hosted Shop Vashon, which encouraged people to shop locally by offering prizes to those who shopped at 12 participating businesses in November. Jim Marsh, the chamber’s executive director, said this was the event’s third year, and participation seems to be growing.
“We benefit by having the kinds of businesses we have here. They massively reflect the character of the island,” he said. “It is crucial when people think of shopping that they make an effort to support these businesses.”
Tom Langland, who has worked at the Vashon Pharmacy since he was 15 and is one of its co-owners, likens shopping locally to casting a ballot, with every dollar spent a vote for or against a local business.
“If you choose your food from national chain grocers instead of our local grocery stores or Vashon farmers, you are voting for a massive corporate entity and possibly turning your back on some of the greatest community supporters that we islanders enjoy,” he said in a recent email.
He noted the same is true for purchases made at big box home centers or for prescriptions filled through mail order; they are votes against local businesses and the benefits they bring to the community.
“The list goes on, up and down both sides of our peculiar little main street,” he added.
In recent conversations on that main street and beyond, nearly every island merchant expressed gratitude for supportive island customers, but some also pointed to the challenges large retailers — particularly Amazon — create for them in ways some customers might not realize.
Nancy Katica, owner of the Vashon Bookshop, is one of those quick to thank the store’s loyal following, going so far as to say she believes she would not still be in business if she were located in the city. But the challenges for Katica are significant regardless. Fairly regularly, Katica says, she watches people in the store take pictures of books or scan the barcodes and order them online — for less — in front of her. This practice, called “showrooming,” occurs in a variety of businesses and eats into stores’ profits.
While the book shop offers predominantly used books, it sells about one-third new books, Katica said, a process that is not as straightforward as it once was. New, popular titles can prove difficult for the store to stock because Amazon frequently buys such large quantities that the books are not available to smaller outlets. Then Amazon sells them at a substantial discount — for less than what Katica and other independent stores can buy them. Sometimes, she added, customers ask her if she can provide a discount on a new book, but she declines.
“If we did that, we would be out of business tomorrow,” she said.
Among the benefits of shopping locally, she added, is that doing so has a much smaller environmental footprint than ordering from Amazon, with its large warehouses, extensive shipping and considerable packaging.
“If you come in and get it from us, we eliminate all that,” she said.
Like many businesses, Katica says the Christmas season is important for the store and sustains the business until the tourist season starts in the summer. But, she stressed, it is important that customers support local stores not just at the holiday season, but all year long.
Just up the street, Karen Eliasen, owner of Vashon Island Music, is celebrating 11 years in business. At her small shop, she offers a variety of CDs and records, lessons and musical instruments, including ukuleles, in part because she leads the Vashon Island Ukulele Society, which performs around the island.
In some ways, her story is similar to Katica’s. She too considers herself “super lucky with customers,” and also contends with Amazon’s buying and selling power.
“It is quite common for me to find things online there for less than my wholesale price,” she said.
At her store, she said, many customers express how much they want her to remain in business, but some have purchasing patterns that say differently.
“More and more ask questions and take pictures, and they do not come back to buy,” she said. “I conclude they have bought things online.”
She recounted a story of how she spent considerable time talking about ukuleles and the brand she carries with a person interested in joining the ukulele society. Afterward, the woman returned to the store, saying she had found two ukuleles on Amazon and asked Eliasen which she would recommend. Providing advice for Amazon purchases is not a service she offers, Eliasen said, adding that said she thinks there is a disconnect between what some customers understand about small businesses and how they shop.
“People understand the positives of having a business, but they need to support us in order to have the business on the island and take advantage of those positives,” she said.
One of those positives frequently mentioned is customer service, which is widely considered to be better in small, independent shops than in large stores.
At Spider’s Ski and Sports, owner Lane MacLeod spoke to that aspect. At his store, he said, they provide service beyond what they could at a busy shop in the city, even servicing warranties for products they do not carry.
“It is different for us. We are not faced with five, six or 12 customers at a time,” he said. “The level of service is easier to provide where we are. If more people understood that, they would be more inclined to shop on the island.”
His wife, Christine MacLeod, also noted that in small businesses such as theirs, customers can influence what the stores carry, within reason.
“Customers have input into what this business economy becomes,” she said.
They like to hear what customers want, she added, and can special order items, which often can arrive within 24 hours. She noted that one special request for a particular bike trailer prompted them to become dealers for the company — and they want those kinds of requests and customer feedback.
Down the street at Dig Nursery, owner Sylvia Matlock acknowledged how phones have changed the retail landscape in recent years, and noted that when she began, cameras were not allowed in businesses.
“Especially in the last few years, if (someone) walks in without a phone, it is rare. Everyone’s heads are down. It really is different,” she said.
Similar to Katica and Eliasen, she recounted how she sometimes assists customers with questions only to have them take pictures of plants and their labels in front of her, presumably for purchase elsewhere, a practice that is hurtful.
“We are not just offering a product, we are offering a passion. We are passionate about what we do,” she said.
She and her husband Ross Johnson recently took a trip up the Oregon Coast to Washington. Along the way, she said, it was clear smaller shops had given way to big business.
“The mom and pop shops were almost zero. On the main highway, there were only big box stores. People choose what they want to have,” she added, “big box stores over mom and pop.”
The pharmacy’s Lang-land notes that merchants must do their part in keeping customers on the island by providing excellent service, needed products competitively priced and convenient hours. And merchants should continue to give back to the community to keep it vibrant.
“This partnership between local businesses and our Vashon clients has and will contribute to keep our community as one of the best places … to live and raise a family,” he said.