About a year ago I was sat in a well-known London eatery with my boyfriend and a friend. We happened to get onto the subject of shopping locally and I was generally regaling him with the virtues of small business when it gradually dawned on me that he was not entirely of the same opinion. Big shops are more convenient, he said, have the things I want and are open when I want them. His message was that small businesses should either adapt or, well, perish. Sad times for a sector which employs over 24 million people - over a third of the UK's population and nearly two thirds of private sector employment - and accounts for 99.9% of all UK private sector businesses.
A manifesto for small business
Now, lets get one thing straight: I'm not against big business on principal, it's just that I'm passionately for small business. And I want to convince you to be as well.
Today is Small Business Saturday. The first time it's been celebrated in the UK, Small Business Saturday has been a US holiday since 2010 and has traditionally been held on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving - one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Just last year they estimated that the holiday resulted in $5.5 billion in sales as well as helping to influence future shopping habits. Considering the contribution that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) make to the UKs economy and employment, it's no surprise that the initiative already has strong political backing - with support across the parties and from the highest levels, including David Cameron, Vince Cable and Chuka Umunna. You may also be surprised to learn that the holiday has been backed by credit card behemoth American Express.
The trouble is, my friend back in the London eatery makes some fair points: local and independent shops are often less convenient, have more traditional opening hours and can have less choice. My answer? Don't assume anything.
Shop local mythology busting
Before claiming a veto of inconvenience or lack of choice, give the independents a chance and check that it is actually the case. For instance, a lot of local shops are open late, have online shops and also mail order options. Also don't assume that shopping local means paying more: it's not just the big supermarkets who can play the 2 for 1 game and some places, like my sleepy home town of Emsworth, even have local loyalty cards which can be accepted in many different shops.
If you don't usually shop local, Christmas is the perfect time to start. So many towns and cities have special Christmas markets with scores of local makers and traders all in one place and often open for business in the evenings and weekends. And lets be honest: when you consider the nightmare that last minute Christmas shopping entails in some large high street shops and mainstream supermarkets, going local starts to feel a lot more appealing.
Even if you still feel you have to do a lot of your shopping in a big store, don't think that just because you can't buy everything locally you can't still have a positive impact by buying some stuff locally. A little goes a long way (or, as some might say, every little counts...) to supporting a future where high streets don't all look the same and an economy where our children still have the choice of starting their own small business. Before you think I'm exaggerating, a 2010 survey by London think tank the New Economics Foundation (nef) found that just 36% of high streets surveyed retained 'their distinctive character' with the rest - over 2/3 of all towns surveyed - being either classified as "clone towns" or on the verge of being clone towns.
Bristol: a local exemplar
Here in Bristol I've been helping local currency the Bristol Pound put together a bit of Christmas PR supporting small businesses over the festive season, and today they announced a B£20,000 target for Bristol Pounds to be spent over the Christmas period. Not bad when you consider that £20,000 spent in Bristol Pounds means well over £40,000 of benefit to the local economy as a result of the 'multiplier effect' (more money spent locally means more money circulating in the local economy which means more money can be spent again...).
Local maker ambassadors Made in Bristol are also running a Shop Local This Christmas campaign, making Bristol a pretty festive exemplar for the Local Christmas Cause!
So, my call to arms is this: shop local this Christmas (even if it's just a little bit).
Your local businesses need you!