Shopping at small businesses isn’t about tossing money at the abstract idea of local commerce.
It’s about building up communities themselves, and enabling real people to offer true value, according to Chris Lerch, founder of Hello 422.
“When you think of your hometown, it’s the small businesses that really make it up,” Lerch said. “They’re owned by people in your community, the employees are people in your area, they contribute, they’re the places you go with your family…They’re just ingrained.”
Businesses in downtown Pottstown are ready for the holiday shopping season. (DONNA ROVINS – MEDIANEWS GROUP PHOTO)
Lerch, who is director of marketing for the 422 Sportsplex in Pottstown, started Hello 422 in 2020, as a passion project during the pandemic shutdown to bring awareness to struggling small businesses.
His organization spotlights local shops along the 422 corridor, from Pottstown through Phoenixville.
A cornerstone of Hello 422’s efforts is the semi-annual Shop Small to Win Big event, where customers who spend $50 or more at local businesses can submit their receipt for a chance at winning thousands of dollars in gift cards.
Shop Small to Win Big has driven over $230,000 in local sales, according to Hello 422’s website.
“I think there’s a renewed interest in small businesses. We all saw how they were struggling, impacted, or shut down…everyone saw that and there’s a lot of great rallying,” Lerch said.
Lerch said one of his favorite places to frequent during the holiday season is Bridge Street Chocolates in Phoenixville.
“They have such an amazing selection of different chocolates and candies, I always end up getting some stocking stuffers there,” Lerch said.
Gifts from small businesses have an extra layer of meaning, according to Lerch.
“A lot of times it’s something that was made locally, a product you can learn more about by talking to the business owner,” Lerch said, “Even in the presentation of the packaging…I just think the whole shopping experience with small businesses is more meaningful.”
Businesses along the 600 block of Penn Avenue in downtown West Reading are ready for the official start of the holiday season. (BILL UHRICH – MEDIA NEWS GROUP PHOTO)
The push to shop locally isn’t a flash in the pan, according to Mark Ratcliffe, main street manager with the West Reading Community Revitalization Foundation.
Ratcliffe’s organization spearheads marketing and promotion for West Reading business, and hosts annual events along Penn Avenue, including Arts on the Avenue and Fall Festival, attended by tens of thousands.
“People are looking for that sense of community, to see their friends and connect with people in a way that shopping malls used to do,” Ratcliffe said of the reason people buy local in the age of online shopping.
Ratcliffe said people are coming to understand that shopping locally keeps the money in the community — adding that studies have shown that 48% of money spent at local businesses is recirculated locally, compared to 14% at a chain store.
Small business also makes a major economic impact — about half of U.S. jobs are created by small businesses, Ratcliffe said.
Quality customer service is another draw of shopping locally, said Eileen Dautrich, president of the TriCounty Area Chamber of Commerce, which serves Berks, Montgomery, and Chester counties.
“When you want to call customer service, it’s a lot nicer to know you’re getting a person on the other end or can stop in on your lunch break at a local business, and have somebody resolve the issue,” Dautrich said.
Laura Vernola, owner of Mont Clare Deli and Market in Upper Providence, in the kitchen of the new business that opened in September. Vernola also owns Steel City Coffeehouse and Brewery in Phoenixville. (DONNA ROVINS – MEDIANEWS GROUP FILE PHOTO)
Offering that personal touch is how small businesses thrive, Dautrich said.
“(Small business owners) are your neighbors, they’re the parents of fellow students on your kids’ soccer team, they’re sponsoring the soccer jerseys,” Dautrich said, “It’s a different way of looking at it when you remember these are people in your own community.”
In addition, small businesses create a sense of place, adding to the vibrancy and character of the community, said Aaron Gantz, senior director of economic development at the Greater Reading Chamber Association.
Gantz said Berks County’s five “main street” areas — Boyertown, Downtown Reading, Hamburg, Kutztown and West Reading — boast a variety of public art, in addition to unique shops, restaurants, and events.
Small Business Saturday
To spotlight small businesses during a weekend where big-box retailers are flooded with customers, several local municipalities and groups this year are holding Small Business Saturday events.
The events offer shoppers additional perks for visiting local stores on Saturday, Nov. 26.
West Reading’s Small Business Saturday event involves handing out tote bags and ShopSmall passports, which can be stamped at participating businesses.
Shoppers who have their passports stamped by at least eight businesses can then enter their passports into a prize drawing, with the winner receiving a complementary holiday carriage ride for four.
A similar event is being held in Hamburg, where shoppers who visit 10 businesses and one restaurant can submit their passports for a chance to win a basket filled with $25 gift cards from each participating business.
Dautrich said the TriCounty Chamber of Commerce has partnered with American Express as part of their “Neighborhood Champion” campaign, which encourages area shoppers to frequent local businesses on Small Business Saturday.
Hello 422’s Shop Small Saturday event is a “nacho crawl,” Lerch said, featuring 21 restaurants along the 422 corridor.
“It’s an idea to get groups of people to bounce around from restaurant to restaurant, order a plate of nachos, and between meals, go do some shopping,” Lerch said.
In addition, Hello 422 is holding another Shop Small to Win Big raffle, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, featuring three grand prizes of $4,000 each in gift cards to 120 local businesses.
Other shop local initiatives
Initiatives to encourage shopping small aren’t limited to the holiday season, Lerch noted.
He said one effort in Phoenixville involves closing two blocks of Bridge Street to car traffic every weekend in the spring through early fall to allow patrons to dine on the street and give businesses an outdoor space to showcase products.
In Berks County, the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance offers the Go Buy Berks gift card, useable at any business in Berks that accepts Mastercard.
Gantz said the card is designed to drive dollars and marketing exposure to Berks County businesses and inspire the community to shop small.
No matter how shoppers choose to support local business, doing so sends a critical message, said Bernard Dagenais, president & CEO of the Main Line Chamber of Commerce.
“Local stores pay local taxes that help cut the burden on residents. They are our neighbors and often hire local employees. They support local organizations, including nonprofits that provide our region with social services, arts and life-enhancing activities,” Dagenais said, “Consumers who make a point of shopping locally are showing that they care about their communities.”