When I think of growing up in Swea City, and how the town has changed since I was a child, the importance of supporting local businesses really hits home.
I am sure that I am not alone in remembering a time when smaller towns had more options to offer consumers. The importance of a local economy is vital to offering the opportunities necessary to sustain an area.
My mom worked at the local grocery store, R & J's Grocery, for years. I got my first job working with the public at Van Norman Drug, an establishment that served its community for more than 50 years.
Swea City, like many small towns in Iowa, has lost much of its business community, especially downtown. When I grew up, the community had a grocery store, a pharmacy and a doctor who visited town a few times a week. I applaud the local businesses like the Country Inn Bar and Grill which are still making it work and offering good service to the community.
While Spencer is better off than many communities, area businesses need to find ways to continue moving forward in the face of competition, especially from online giants like Amazon. I am as guilty as anyone for buying online and I would not tell anyone to completely forgo the method, but I would encourage local residents here in Spencer and in other communities across the nation to shop local first.
Give your local outlets a try and see what they have to offer. Shopping local not only provides jobs and contributes to a sense of community, but shopping local offers other intangible benefits. A consumer can't get expert advice from a computer. A consumer can't build personal relationships and a rapport with an online store.
Local businesses have to play their part too in the changing landscape of meeting consumer needs. Stores can start by knowing their community and what appeals to local consumers.
Developing a niche that you are known for as a business is a way to make the store a destination. I know that is easier said than done, but in some cases customer feedback can lead a store to realize they have something others aren't offering. In other cases, it might just be worth it to answer that question, "What can my store offer that my competitors are not?"
Another step is to not concede the online domain completely to larger companies. Many local businesses have a website and or Facebook presence, but I don't always think they use these options to their full advantage. Often local businesses do not have the time or resources to offer the kind of online convenience of retail juggernauts like Walmart or even eBay, but highlighting deals or special items on a weekly or monthly basis is a way to get people talking without a huge financial or time commitment.
Innovative businesses like Groupon present a model of something this area could benefit from imitating. Groupon does provide coverage for the Spencer area, but most of the deals listed on the site are not through local companies. Using the web through a regional organization could provide local businesses with a way to promote their products to a larger, younger demographic. It is not that people in the area don't know about products or services in the area, but having a means to remind potential customers and patrons could be a means to further business and deserves further consideration.
More traditional means of advertising such as ads in the paper and The Northwest Iowa and Blue Water Shopper are still a viable way to reach a large audience at an affordable price. These publications extend into the area without the risk associated with more unproven methods.
The area has quality businesses that offer unique products and exceptional customer service. I am by no means an expert, but I think getting people to think local in larger numbers will require a renewed social contract between businesses and customers emphasizing advantages that online companies cannot readily provide.