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Support your locally-owned businesses

This holiday season, how you spend your dollars will have a big impact on small businesses.|

“Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy and employ almost half of the working population.”

—Congressman Dan Lipinski

The surging pandemic and lingering recession is bankrupting small businesses across the country in levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to one recent survey, nearly 30 percent of California’s small businesses have closed their doors permanently this year including many here in Petaluma, among them Three Twins Ice Cream, The Sweet Zone (formerly Powell’s Sweet Shoppe), Whisper Sisters bar and a few dozen others.

Several hundred of Petaluma’s remaining small business are hanging on by a thread, hoping they can survive the dark COVID-19 winter months and make it to the spring when vaccination rates are expected to swell and a long-awaited economic rebound should commence.

But the prospects for the next few months do not look good at all, and infections are surging everywhere. Tragically, the absence of a coordinated federal response to the virus has left states and counties to go it alone, leaving a patchwork approach that isn’t working.

Petaluma chamber of commerce members last week heard from county Economic Development Director Sheba Person-Whitley who shared that many of the county’s small business owners are growing increasingly alarmed about their prospects for survival. She said tourism-related businesses — including hotels, restaurants, wineries, breweries, some retail and entertainment hubs — have been “decimated.”

Earlier this year, her department distributed $2.5 million in grants to 500 local businesses as part of the federal CARES act, but 800 other applicants were left empty-handed when the money ran out. Unless the feds renew a comprehensive relief package in the next couple weeks, benefits will expire Dec. 31, additional businesses will shutter and more jobs will disappear.

Person-Whitley says that the lack of access to capital, adequate child care and regulatory relief are worsening the financial problems for thousands of Sonoma County small business owners and their employees. She hopes the State of California will follow through on its recent promise of temporary tax relief and $500 million in aid to small businesses struggling with virus restrictions. The money is proposed to come in grants of up to $25,000 to small businesses and nonprofits. Yet so far, no specifics have come forth.

Again, Amazon does not need you this year, but Petaluma’s small business owners certainly do.

Still, there are some bright spots in the darkness. Among them are the numerous local retailers who made the conversion to e-commerce to enable online ordering and delivery for customers who are uncomfortable shopping in person during a pandemic.

To learn more, I spoke last week with entrepreneurial wunderkinds Michelle and Cristina Wilson, owners of Petaluma’s Ooh La Luxe downtown boutique. Seven years ago, the twin sisters carefully explored various e-commerce solutions and chose Shopify which they set up themselves. The platform offered just enough bells and whistles that have since enabled them to compete effectively with online shopping titans like Amazon.

Since the pandemic began the pair have aggressively updated their business plan, mostly in the area of marketing to ensure existing and new customers can effectively utilize their website. Prior to the pandemic their store’s online sales drove 20 percent of their total revenues with 80 percent coming from walk-in customers. Today, that number has flipped, with 80 percent of revenue derived from online sales and the remainder from walk-in customers.

For small retailers like the Wilsons, the holiday shopping season is a make-or-break time that can drive up to 40 percent of the year’s total sales. Despite the worsening economy, the duo are confident they will emerge from the pandemic stronger than before and are happy to share their business development strategies to support their fellow Petaluma small business owners. (In fact, their extraordinary business acumen has landed them in the Sonoma State University Entrepreneurs in Residence program alongside legendary businessman and Lagunitas Brewery founder Tony Magee.)

Recently the sisters joined forces with a few dozen other Petaluma businesses in an innovative new program launched last week by the City of Petaluma and the Downtown Association. According to Petaluma Economic Development Manager Ingrid Alverde, the new Shop Petaluma Gift Card is an all-digital, carry-on-your-phone program enabling holiday shoppers to conveniently support local stores. The gift card works the same as if someone were paying with a credit card, but there’s no plastic involved, just a link to text or email recipients who can use it to make purchases at local shops, restaurants and other businesses.

E-cards are available for purchase at ShopPetaluma.com which also offers a directory of locally owned shops, service providers, restaurants and other local businesses who could use your support right now more than ever before.

Remember, these are the same businesses we rely upon to donate generously in support of local non-profit organizations and youth sports teams, and whose enterprises provide the vital tax revenue which sustains city government services.

There’s a lot you can do to ensure they are able to stay in business into 2021 and well beyond. You can buy a Shop Petaluma Gift Card. Or put on a face mask and patronize stores in person. If you’re not comfortable going out, visit them virtually via their website or on their Facebook or Instagram pages. Many offer curbside pick-up or delivery and are working very long hours to help customers fulfill their holiday shopping needs.

Make this the year to finally cut your addiction to Amazon whose founder, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world. Instead of helping him get even richer, support locally owned stores and businesses so they can stay alive through these terrible times.

Yes, I know that using Amazon is super convenient. But so is visiting Petaluma’s Copperfield’s Books on your i-phone or laptop computer. If you wish to give someone a book this Christmas, go to copperfieldsbooks.com and place your order.

Again, Amazon does not need you this year, but Petaluma’s small business owners certainly do. Help preserve and sustain Petaluma’s fragile economy this Christmas season and prevent more local people from losing their jobs and possibly their homes.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com)

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