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Small Businesses Pay Big Dividends in any Community

Think one person, doing one small thing, can’t make a big difference?

Think again, Michiganders.

“Even if a person made a conscious effort, a pledge to themselves, a commitment to their neighborhood that 1 out of every 10 purchases (now going out-of-state) would go to a local business, it could fuel our (state’s) economy with an extra $1.2 billion — not to mention keeping that business as part of your community,” said Cathleen Edgerly, executive director of Downtown Lansing Inc.

This holiday season is shaping up to be an important opportunity for those mom-and-pop shops that dot our downtowns to regain some stability that’s been lacking for the past couple of years — especially as we come out of a pandemic period where many dollars once spent locally and in-person instead disappeared into cyberspace through e-commerce.

“It comes down to making that extra-step effort to make sure you’re supporting the local businesses that are important to you,” said Don McNabb, board chair for the Eaton Rapids Downtown Development Authority. “We want to keep people local, we want to keep people visiting our businesses and we want to keep these businesses here for a long period of time.”

It’s about more than supporting those small entrepreneurs. The dollars they get here, stay here.

“The money stays in the community,” said Craig Hatch, president and CEO of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Experience Jackson. “That makes your community more healthy and more vibrant, and it builds more jobs. It’s also supporting those business owners that support the community. They’re the ones who are going to sponsor your Little League teams. They’re the ones that are going to share with your nonprofits.”

That money also creates local jobs.

“Small, local business owners are the biggest employers nationally. They create 2 out of every 3 new jobs in the local economy,” said Edgerly. “They employ more than 52% of the nation’s employees. That’s pretty significant for any community of any size and for our state as well.”

It’s also about what Adam Cummins, community and economic development administrator for the city of East Lansing, called “placemaking.” Those are the distinct charms that make your community your home: “It gives your community that unique charm and character that people desire.”

In the same way the coronavirus has changed our habits, it’s also hit the reset button on the shopping patterns for many consumers. That’s a challenge for small businesses, but it’s also an opportunity for merchants who make themselves visible, from storefronts to websites.

“Understanding the time that we’re living in, there are a lot of unknowns,” Cummins said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for new customers. The pandemic has shifted consumer behaviors. There’s a lot of customers up for grabs who are looking for new places to shop and dine.”

In our digital era, it’s important to note that shopping in town doesn’t have to mean shopping in person. You can still shop from behind your laptop on the couch and peruse the online offerings of a local shop. That puts the onus on local shopkeepers to maintain and build the online presences that helped them survive social distancing rules.

“E-commerce for our local businesses is huge because it’s a great convenience,” said Hatch. “Whether you’re sitting at home or sitting at my daughter’s softball game, you can sit there and shop. It’s so easy to go to Amazon. A lot of that is on our local businesses to make sure they’re staying ahead of that game and getting into the e-commerce world.”

Many mid-Michigan merchants’ associations are planning holiday season initiatives, events and promotions Edgerly called “shopportunities” to help lure people back to their city centers, debit cards in hand. Those range from gift cards that can only be used at local merchants, social events that bring people into shopping districts to mingle and shop, and other marketing efforts to build awareness.

Ultimately, all that adds up to more than just supporting local entrepreneurship. Rather, it’s about preserving the foundation that creates a magnetic pull for people to want to come to Greater Lansing communities — and stay there.

“If we want to keep people in our communities, we’ve got to create jobs. We have to have things for them to want to do,” said McNabb. “It goes back to the motto ‘Live, Work and Play.’ You’ve got to find ways for people to do all three.”

Edgerly agreed: “We have to support the people and places that are here, that give us so much support. Look at who supports local events. Who supports local sports teams? Who’s creating great community spaces? Those are our local businesses.

“Let’s give them the love and support that they have given all of us for decades and, sometimes, for generations,” she added.


Small-Business Tactics to Thrive

Here are some ideas from mid-Michigan economic development experts on what small businesses can do to delight their customers and define their community value:

  • Socialization, not just shopping. Creating events, happenings and social spaces (think how-to classes, sampling events, art installations) can encourage people to try new things and perhaps make related purchases. Plus, it’s something mega-sized digital sellers simply cannot offer: an in-person social experience.
  • Team up with your retail neighbors. Large-scale themed events like special shopping days or holiday-themed activities coordinated between various nearby businesses can create buzz and draw a mass of shoppers that benefit all. Get your shopping district to be seen as a fun place to be, not just to shop.
  • Maintain a strong online presence. Social distancing may have prompted many small businesses to improve their online offerings, but a return to normal shouldn’t get them to stop. Keep giving local shoppers an online option. Pay attention to your website and use social media to show off products and services.