xN Gift Guide—How to shop small and responsibly in 2020 and beyond

The months leading up to the now-global phenomenon that is Black Friday, I started to take note of the small business and brands that I wanted to feature in my not-so-annual holiday gift guide. I’ve never been consistent about creating said guide, but this year I was extremely motivated after returning to full-time entrepreneurship in September, and wanted to spread love the small business owner way. 

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But after much ado, this list never came to fruition. This was for two reasons. Firstly, I had too much on my plate going into the holiday season. Secondly, the need for a different type of guide quickly became evident to me—one that wasn't focused squarely on consumption. Wearing both the creative and client-facing hats for my business, I am in regular contact with customers and the public (the good, the bad, and the ugly, but overwhelmingly good). But like everything in 2020, it was not business as usual headed into the 2020 annual shopping ritual. There was an unprecedented shift toward not just e-commerce, but also small business shopping. With this came unprecedented small business challenges, most notably, of the customer-facing variety. (I’ve read about similar experiences in the restaurant industry as well.) Chatting with fellow small business owner-friends in DMs, Zoom happy hours, and phone calls, I began to consider a different type of guide that didn’t focus on what customers could purchase, but rather how they could be better small business customers. Ten years into my entrepreneurial journey, I have some ideas. Small businesses contribute to 44% of the U.S. economy, and are the social backbone of many of our communities. So if we want to keep small businesses in business, and our communities whole, we all have a very important role to play.

So albeit a little belated, I have put together a brief but useful guide on how to shop small, not just during the holiday season, but year round. Here are my three takeaways:

Reach out directly to the shop if you have shipping questions or concerns. And then be patient.

This first one came to me a couple of weeks before the USPS self-declared an unprecedented disaster, I mean, disruption. (No shade to the USPS—I know and adore many of my local post office workers dearly, and there are myriad reasons, as to why the USPS suffered the fate that it did during the pandemic.) If you need your order faster than its stated shipment window, or by a specific date, please contact the shop owner directly (but preferably not via Instagram—we can’t properly track correspondence here). Here’s why that’s a good idea: When you write to us, you’ll likely get a real person on the other end who can respond with relevant information and details about your particular order. Depending on the shipment window and the speed of the post office, actual delivery times do predictably vary—in a non-2020, non-pandemic climate. This was harder during the 2020 holiday season for reasons I detail below, but reaching out directly is generally sound advice. 

So, if you need an order expedited, or have a question about shipment time, be sure to (first) read the product description in full, and then, just write to us!

But for 2020’s context, 30,000 post office workers were out of work for Covid-related reasons during the end of the year. Meanwhile, the volume of packages being shipped increased by 33% compared to the same period last year. This means that the USPS—and other carriers—were exceptionally backlogged. While this was beyond our control, we could explain to customers who reached out exactly what was going on (as far as we knew) and to reassure them that we were monitoring the situation. In my experience, both as a customer and small business owner, shoppers just want to know that their concern is being attended to in one way or another, and a quick exchange often goes a long way. 

Shadé Akanbi of Printed Pattern People has a very succinct message for website visitors displayed at the top of her homepage: "COVID-19 SHOP UPDATE: please expect to wait at least 7-15 business days to receive your order." My friend Brooke of Bog Berry Dryer Balls has a fair-and-square approach on her website banner: "The USPS is experiencing historic delays. Please don't place an order unless you are at peace with a lot of uncertainty about when your order might arrive!" The moral of the story is: If you need an order expedited, or have a question about shipment time, be sure to (first) read the product description in full, and then, just write to us! 

You can ask for—but don’t expect—a discount

This is a tricky one. Because small business owner’s are exceptionally transparent about communication and our contact details, we’re also more likely to receive discount requests. But we’re the least likely to be able to give them simply because we run lean operations and many hold conservative amounts of inventory at a time, comparably speaking (especially if you’re importing or making handmade goods, like myself). In my own experience, I honor requests on a case-by-case basis, and whether I offer one has a lot to do with the availability of the product and how the request is made (i.e., was the person courteous?). 

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Furthermore, if you’ve been following the latest small business news, then you know that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black-owned small businesses. Asking for a discount from any small business could be a stretch, but it presents Black-owned small businesses with a more pronounced dilemma. We don’t want to alienate a potential customer, but we also might not be in a financial position to honor the request. 

So here’s the takeaway: Ask yourself if you really need the discount. If you’re compelled to ask for a discount, do it nicely and also explain a bit about why you want or need the discount. And if the shop owner is unable or unwilling to honor the request, make your purchase anyway

Credit where—and how—credit is due

Etsy is not a source. Amazon is not a source. Pinterest is, you guessed it, also not a source. There are real business owners, shops, photographers, and creative minds behind products and services, and each deserves credit for their work and intellectual property. This might mean doing a little research (like, very little) to find out the owner’s or creator’s social media handle or website, or just to verify that the source you are sharing is correct if you are receiving the information from an indirect source. Usually, this information is already part of any promotional material they’ve sent with your order, but if you’re sharing something you found on social media, be sure to search for the correct handle or hashtag before sharing the content. Small businesses rely heavily on word of mouth and referrals to their work, so simply sharing this information accurately can make a big difference impact toward their bottom line.

In conclusion, and my favorite small shops!

These pointers are just the beginning. In order to foster and encourage the small businesses that are the heartbeat of our communities, we have to ensure that the owners are solvent, both financially and mentally. The aforementioned and a regular dose of humanity should get—and keep—us there. If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a traditional gift guide. Here is a list of nine small shops that I have supported throughout 2020 (and some other years), in no decipherable order. Many of these shop owners I know personally, and so I can vouch for their character as well:

  1. Basbass Sauce: Somali condiments and East African cookbook, In Bibi's Kitchen (NY, online)
  2. Rayo and Honey: Home decor, canvas pennants (NY, online)
  3. Jermaine T. Bell: Stationary (Baltimore, online)
  4. Keta Metals: Jewelry (Philly, online)
  5. Bog Berry Dryer Balls (Philly, online)
  6. Floral Symbiosis: Floral design and arrangements (BK-based)
  7. KSM Candle Co: Soy and cruelty-free candles (Baltimore, online)
  8. Peace + Riot: Home decor, gift, furniture, and interior design (BK brick-and-mortar, online)
  9. Printed Pattern People: Apparel, jewelry, and gifts (BK and online)

All for now,

Nasozi

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