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Shop locally this holiday season for the sake of pandemic-hammered Chicago businesses

Local small businesses are more than eager to meet shoppers halfway.

West 26th Street and South Kedzie Avenue in Little Village, Tuesday afternoon, May 5, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The coronavirus and its damage to the economy have left Chicago shoppers saying they intend to spend about 32% less this holiday season compared with last year.

But that’s still an average $1,053 of expected spending per household — for gifts, travel and entertainment — according to a new Deloitte Consulting survey. If spent with a touch more than the usual community spirit, it could go far in tiding over local businesses until the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

That’s our mantra for the day: Shop early and shop local.

Many local businesses received modest federal coronavirus relief aid months ago, but it was a one-time boost that has only marginally helped keep retailers afloat. Further aid from Washington is not expected any time soon, even as Illinois struggles with a second surge of the virus and public health officials warn that restrictions on businesses may be necessary well into 2021.

The question is how long small businesses, the engine of our local economy, can hold on. Nationwide, roughly one in five small businesses have closed, the data firm Womply reported last month.

Consider the plight of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and its “Second Magnificent Mile,” which reportedly has generated about $900 million in sales revenue annually in recent years. Twenty-Sixth Street is a two-mile stretch of global grocery stores, restaurants, jewelry stores, bakeries, colorful murals and storefronts brimming with dazzling quinceañera dresses and leather Western wear.

The holiday season is traditionally a very big deal along 26th Street, as it is for small businesses across the Chicago region. It can be the time when a profit is turned, or lost, for the entire year.

“It’s a very important business portal for the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois,” Little Village Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Blanca Soto told the Sun-Times. “On any weekend, 26th Street is still bumper to bumper. You also see a lot of license plates from other states like Minnesota and Michigan.”

Yet many Little Village businesses missed out on coronavirus relief aid, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Soto said, because the businesses’ owners didn’t have the technical know-how or support to provide the necessary financial documentation.

Kim Close, director of programming at Little Village Community Foundation, said her organization is working with the chamber of commerce to provide small grants to local businesses. The foundation’s Road to Recovery program offers “scholarships” of between $1,000 to 3,000 to Little Village businesses and includes technical assistance in such areas as accounting and administration.

But understandably, given the high cost, not all of Little Village’s 500 or so businesses are in line for the boost.

The Deloitte Consulting survey shows, not surprisingly, that many more of us plan to shop online this holiday season rather than visit actual stores. Half of the survey’s Chicago respondents said they were nervous about visiting stores, especially during crowded times, and Chicagoans overall expect to spend 66% of their holiday budget online.

In our experience, local businesses are more than willing to meet us halfway. They’ll take orders over the phone. They’ll offer gift cards. They’ll provide curbside service. Some will take appointments, allowing customers to safely slip in and out to do their shopping. Some are happy, even eager, to make deliveries, especially right in the neighborhood.

We stress the importance of shopping early, as well, for two reasons. Retailers report that supply chains may slow up the closer we draw to Thanksgiving and Christmas, given the enormous shift to online shopping. And the big boys in retail, such as Walmart, have begun rolling out their holiday deals right now, rather than waiting for the traditional Black Friday kickoff on the day after Thanksgiving.

If small local businesses hope to survive, they must compete right now. A little more local consumer loyalty — a determination to support the thousands of small businesses that enrich our neighborhoods — could make all the difference.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.