The Gift-Giver's Guide to Shopping Local

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he Internet is always there, lurking. It couldn’t be easier to click a few buttons and have life’s essentials arrive at your door. These days, local businesses don’t just compete with big boxes and department stores, they compete with everything on the World Wide Web.

But choosing gifts for people – selecting something perfectly matched to personality and preferences, that adequately conveys your love and appreciation for them – can be trickier than making sure another case of paper towels arrives before the last one runs out.

“What are your goals for this purchase?” Heidi Butzine, founder of ShopLocal.us and author of “Shop Local: A Practical, Pain-Free Guide to Shopping With a Purpose” (Simplex Publishing, 2012), suggests you ask yourself. “Do you just want something as cheap as you can get it?”

If we’re not careful, holiday shopping becomes merely one more task to be completed at our desks – another workload piled on top of everything else we have to do at this busy time of year.

So why not try something different? Step away from the screen and make shopping an experience this year, and a pleasant experience at that. “It feels good to get out of your office, away from the computer,” Butzine says. “Take a break and engage with people at a local store.”

The benefits of this approach are not just for you. You’ll also be supporting your community, as well as delighting those on your gift list.

When it comes to shopping local, there’s plenty of reward to go around.

For your community …

Shopping at local stores is “the gift that keeps on giving,” says Bill Brunelle, executive director of Independent We Stand, an organization launched in 2011 to educate consumers and businesses about the economic benefits of buying local. When you purchase something at a locally owned business, more of your money stays in the community, he explains. It’s not going out of town to a big-box corporate office. Store owners based in the community are also more likely to hire local accountants and marketing firms, as well as source more of the products they sell locally. “It’s really a multiplier effect,” he says. “The money keeps recirculating.”

Why is that important? Think about how local stores contribute to the fabric of your community, suggests Kathleen McHugh, president of The American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA). The toy store in town might be where parents bring their kids for a craft class, or where they know they can pick up a last-minute gift that will be wrapped for them, or where they go when the baseball team needs a sponsor.

Independent stores’ distinctive presence gives your city character and make it a special place to live. “The guy across the counter may be a second-generation employee, and he’s been on the school board,” Brunelle says. “He’s got a true vested interest in the community.”

For your recipient …

America has become a bit of a “throwaway society,” Brunelle says. “Once something doesn’t work, it goes in the landfill, and you get what you pay for sometimes.” But the holidays are the perfect time to break out of this mode. “When you’re looking for a gift that will make someone feel good, buy something unique, something they don’t have in big boxes or national chains.”

When you take the time to find something special, you’re giving the person some of yourself, Butzine notes. Perhaps the gift will represent where you live. Butzine lives on the ocean, so she sometimes chooses artwork or a photo of the beach for landlocked friends. “Your gift can remind them of you or provide an escape,” she says. “Gift giving is so individualized. You just need to stop and think.”

If you’re shopping locally, you don’t have to think alone. “You can go into a local toy store and talk to someone who’s really well trained in child development,” McHugh says. Just give them the child’s age, and you can likely walk out with the perfect present. “That’s priceless – there’s no guessing!”

Plus, you can select from more than just the latest mass-produced toys and games. You’ll get a range of creative, open-ended playthings. “It’s not about what the toy does, but what the child does with this toy,” McHugh says. “If a kid can find a million ways to play with the same toy, you’ve hit the jackpot.”

In the same way, the bookseller in town may suggest local or regional authors you haven’t heard of, the local boutique may have clothing or jewelry by designers you might otherwise miss, and the music store down the street may have cutting-edge tunes by independent artists, plus a great selection of vintage vinyl, these experts say.

For yourself …

“The holidays get so stressful, but try to look at your shopping as a fun, meaningful opportunity,” Butzine says. It can make you feel good to find something you know a person on your list will love.

Try to enjoy the process rather than making it a mad dash to buy stuff. Try the “Shop Local Loop,” she suggests. Work your way through the neighborhood stores in a 1- to 5-mile radius of where you live.

You’ll likely be rewarded with unusual and offbeat gift options, as well as more knowledgeable employees and perhaps even the store owner in person. “I like to touch everything,” McHugh says. “When you shop in person you get it right the first time. There’s no being surprised and having to return things.”

This heightened level of customer service can help when buying for someone you don’t know so well: grandparents who aren’t as in touch with what kids are doing at a certain age, people who don’t have kids but want to wow their nieces and nephews, you with that one enigmatic sister-in-law. “When you show up with the best gift, you win the day,” McHugh says.

Shopping local can even help you conquer the most difficult holiday gift list challenge of all: the co-worker. Choose a gift card for an area restaurant, Butzine suggests. Then you’re giving something you know will be convenient, as well as supporting a local business, and you and the recipient could even go there together. And for the person who doesn’t need any more stuff, a donation to a local charity – in your area or theirs – may be just the thing. “That’s a nice way of getting around the idea that a gift must be something tangible,” Butzine says.

Finally, once you’ve found that perfect item – the chocolates made by a local confectioner, the sweater from a family that’s been knitting for generations, a toy that will entertain for hours – be sure you share your experience with the recipient too. Rather than just slapping a tag on the package, add a card that tells the gift’s story: who made it, why you chose it, how you found it. “A personal note saying how much fun you had picking out their gift lets them know the thoughtfulness involved,” Butzine says. “It lets them know this is heartfelt.”

After all, that is the goal of holiday gift giving.