The Best Holiday Gifts Come From Small Businesses

Irina Grechko
·6 min read

2020 hasn’t been normal, so why would the holiday season be? Many people are (wisely) not going home for the holidays. Others are opting out of giving gifts, whether because of financial reasons or general stress from, well, gestures broadly. As someone who takes great pleasure in picking out gifts for each person on my list every year and am fortunate to have a full-time job, I am not ready to give up the tradition. I am, however, shopping for fewer people this holiday season and making a point to only buy gifts from small businesses.

Like many people, I have cleaned out my closet more times than I care to admit since the pandemic led to shelter-in-place orders. Despite yielding a giant donation bag each time, my closet doesn’t seem to be getting more space. Having come face-to-face with my own excess, in addition to realizing that I wear the same 10 items on repeat in quarantine, I have decided to give up fast-fashion, the culprit behind the majority of items in the bags.

But my former lack of restraint isn’t the only reason I have stopped shopping from brands known for their cheap prices and quick runway-to-store turnaround. In 2020, small businesses have faced unprecedented challenges. With most forced to close their doors during shelter-in-place and lockdown orders in the spring, many are finding themselves still unable to make rent months later, let alone turn a profit. In the summer, after stores had reopened with limited capacity in New York City, I found myself walking past a children’s clothing shop around the corner from my apartment. An expertly-curated place I have often found myself running to for last-minute gifts for my niece, it has always been packed with people. It now stood completely empty.

This may have been the first time I’ve witnessed that scene in New York, but, over the last few months, it, unfortunately, has not been the last. After seeing the struggle that so many local businesses, from restaurants to boutiques, are facing, it’s hard to justify spending the money — that I, too, am being very judicious with right now — anywhere else. I am not alone. According to a recent Visa study, 60% of U.S. shoppers plan to do at least half of their shopping at local retailers this holiday season. And while plenty of people have long shopped solely at small, independent businesses, for many, including me, the pandemic marked a turning point.

As anyone who has experienced the thrill of a cheap fashion find knows, the hardest part of quitting the habit is not being able to buy something on impulse or as a form of retail therapy — especially after a long week… and a few glasses of wine. The convenience of getting something within two days can’t be denied either, especially now, when I can go days without leaving the house. But while it may seem like an inconvenience to have given up on Amazon, which I’ve come to rely on for everything from cleaning supplies to last-minute gifts, and fast fashion, it has also resulted in a closet that delights me.

While I know that the only way to be a sustainable consumer is not to buy anything new at all, fashion brings me too much joy to give it up altogether. Instead, in addition to trying to buy secondhand items as much as possible (Thrilling, an online platform for independent vintage stores around the country, is my current go-to), I have become very conscious of where I purchase new things from. Since March, face masks aside, I bought a pair of yellow zebra-print knit pants from Victor Glemaud; a Victor Glemaud knit skirt; a bag from Telfar, the Brooklyn-based brand that counts AOC as a fan; and a letter charm from Lulu Frost, a New York-based jewelry brand which has since announced that it’s taking a break. None of these items were cheap, but they’re ones I will treasure for a long time.

Sure, I still look at Zara’s latest collection and sales with my co-workers, and virtually imagine all the things I would buy if it were last year. But weeks after closing every one of my 10 tabs from the Spanish retailer’s latest blowout sale, I couldn’t even tell you the items I thought I had to have. Instead, after spending months waiting for Tombolo to restock its spaghetti alle vongole camp shirt, I didn’t hesitate to purchase it minutes after getting the back-in-stock alert. Now, it brings me joy every time I take it out. Just looking at Susan Alexandra’s shrimp cocktail earrings on the website has a similar effect.

It’s been thrilling to pay attention to what others are buying, too. Since the pandemic began, it has been inspiring to see moments of solidarity and community during the hardest of days. Many in my circle are also supporting local stores and independent businesses. After complimenting my colleague on her printed face mask, I discovered artist and illustrator Naomi Alessandra’s cloth face coverings, which I would love to pair with a Second Wind chain. After another colleague brought my attention to Selkie, a line of unabashedly fanciful dresses, I bookmarked it for once I am (eventually back) to planning my wedding events. After hearing my old boss obsess over the fabrics of Brooklyn-based, sustainable brand Softwear, whose founder hand-dyes each tie-dye piece, I am now waiting for the arrival of what is promised to be the softest shirt I will ever wear. (If that turns out to be true, maybe there will be a lot of hoodies and sweatpants under the tree this year.) Every time one of my friends unveils their Brother Vellies Something Special delivery on Instagram, it sends me running to the brand’s website for a pair of Cloud Socks.

And this is just in the fashion department; I could write a whole article on the life-changing powers of Burlap & Barrel spices if we were to move to my kitchen.

With an eye on the holiday season, I’ve been keeping a list of all the small brands that have crossed my way since the pandemic. While the gifts will be smaller and less expensive than years past (with a lot of face masks made by independent artists and Cloud Socks), they have all been lovingly selected with each person in mind. Some, like gifts for the children in the family, are coming from the store around the corner from my apartment; others will be ordered online with ample time for shipping.

On the latter point, you do need to get started right now if you’re planning on shopping from small businesses online. Not only will getting orders in now eliminate the holiday rush, but you’ll also be helping brands and stores that have struggled during the pandemic. According to an American Express study, 46% of small business owners are counting on above average holiday sales to stay in business in 2021; 64% say that Small Business Saturday, held the day after Black Friday to encourage people to shop small and local, is more critical than ever.

And, if you’re anything like me, after eight months away from impulse-shopping late at night, I am more than ready to indulge in retail therapy — and support businesses that need most help while at it.

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