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“Shopping small” and buying local invests dollars in local communities, helping to keep both businesses and the community alive. (Annette Tait/Special to Agweek)

Two sides to 'Shop Small'

There's no doubt that small businesses add to the rural economy. Our main streets are lined with independent, local businesses — pharmacies, hardware stores, groceries, cafes and pretty much any other storefront found in small-town America. Add to that the cottage industries — one-person concerns that operate out of homes — and you see the face of rural entrepreneurship.

Those businesses offer more than just the convenience of making purchases without having to drive to a larger city. They contribute to our communities through payroll, profits spent within the community, donations to local charities and other community-minded spending.

Chain stores and even locally-owned franchises don't contribute nearly as heavily. Research shows local independents generate roughly three times as much secondary spending as large chain outlets. That's three times as much going to local scout troops, school fundraisers, senior citizens centers, civic organizations and local non-profits.

These numbers are more than just statistics — we see their faces in our communities on a daily basis. Business owners who are part of the community constantly step up to the plate, no matter what the cause. Each time we think, "We just can't ask them AGAIN," they volunteer of their own accord.

Which is important to remember before we bypass them to drive "to town," especially for holiday shopping. For 2017, projections show consumers expect to spend an average of nearly $1,000. Spending locally helps our neighbors and often yields unique one-of-a-kind gifts that can't be found anywhere else.

And not only that, there's the "use it or lose it" factor. Our local small businesses will only survive if we patronize them. Too many storefronts across rural America lie empty because local folks went elsewhere to make their purchases.

Which brings us to the "other" side of shopping local. Just because small businesses exist in small towns doesn't make them entitled to our purchases. Like any other business, they need to not only earn our trade but keep us coming back for more.

Do they greet us when we walk in the door? Help us find what we need? Are they willing to make special orders if they don't have what we're looking for in stock? Or suggest somewhere else we might find it if we need it right away?

Customer service is a huge part of repeat business. If we don't feel welcome, and consistently don't find what we want, there's no reason to shop there.

But don't just walk out and never go back. Let them know your concerns and give them a chance. They can't fix a problem they don't know they have.

We know that won't always help. There always seems to be one who knows he or she is the only game in town, and doesn't care what you think. Feel free to walk away from those — we do.

But there are plenty of others who work hard to serve their customers — repeat and new — and deserve to stay in business. We can make a difference for them by doing what we can to shop small, especially during the holidays, to help our local independent businesses as well as our local economies and quality of life.

So when you pull out your list this holiday season, consider spending "small" — business, that is. You'll find unique items for the people you love, and you just may help keep a small business's doors open.