Shop Local: Sustaining Small Business

Trends / Sustainability
Mike Harrington
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Nov 30, 2021
Anyone who has witnessed an increase in empty storefronts in their city or town knows first‑hand how essential small businesses are to a healthy local economy. During the pandemic, while the convenience and safety of ordering online from big box stores took priority, the SBE Council estimates that 30% of all small businesses in the US shut their doors.1 In reaction, at Getty Images, our customers were searching for phrases such as “shop local” and “support small business,” right along with “sustainable small business.” Considering that thriving local economies and reduced income inequality are important to a holistic definition of sustainability, visuals highlighting small, local businesses are important and likely to resonate with today’s value‑driven consumers.
Our latest wave of Visual GPS research revealed that, while expense is still a barrier to buying sustainable products, consumers are just as likely to buy from smaller, local companies over global ones as they are to choose a brand because of its sustainable practices. There are certainly environmental benefits to shopping small: independent businesses tend to source products locally, and Sustainable Connections estimates that when communities have a strong local shopping options, residents reduce their auto emissions by 26%.2 Small businesses often don’t have the resources to make the same kinds of renewable energy commitments that large international businesses have a responsibility to make, but consumers understand that by simply being a small business serving a local community, it’s a more sustainable option.3

“Buy Local” and Small Business Saturday campaigns have been popular in the US since the 2009 recession, and in honor of Small Business Week last month, many large brands highlighted the small restaurants and establishments that stock their products in their ads. Visual GPS found that 82% of Americans are shopping at small businesses as much or more than they did before the pandemic; however, in light of the mounting supply chain issues, small businesses are likely to need even more support. So, for small businesses or brands who may supply to small businesses, here are three insights for choosing visuals.4
Consumers care who is running the business
In conjunction with searches for sustainability and small businesses, our customers were also concerned with who is running the small business: searches for “black small business owner” and “small business owner woman” were also trending up over the past year. When it comes to visualizing the businesses that need the most support, it makes sense: of those that shuttered during Covid, 27% of small businesses run by Black or Indigenous people, or people of color (BIPOC) closed, compared with 18% of others; 25% of female‑owned businesses closed, compared to 20% of male‑owned businesses.5 This indicates that our customers want to ensure that they are supporting those who need it most when they encourage people to shop small.

Our survey also found that respondents who self‑identify as working class are more likely than professional workers to say that supporting small businesses keeps money within the community. So, highlight female and BIPOC‑owned businesses, and think beyond boutiques—show diversity in the type of businesses and communities they may serve.
Unique local products are as important as environmentally‑aware practices
Small retail businesses that incorporate zero‑waste models, sustainable packaging, or composting are great, but dealing with waste is just one aspect of the holistic definition of sustainability. As mentioned above, the shipping delays caused by the supply chain backup happening in the US and around the world as a result of the pandemic is certainly affecting some small businesses, but it's also drawing attention to the value of having sustainable resources available locally, rather than depending solely on foreign trade. Not only is this a tactic to reduce transmissions, it's also a way to ensure that communities are self‑sustaining.

Our research found that unique products are one of the top reasons consumers go out of their way to shop local. So, think about showcasing businesses that source their own materials, build products or offer services on a small, local scale, or provide experiences that may be unique to the region.

Showing place and community in the shop or workplace
Even though e‑commerce is on the rise for businesses of all sizes, our Visual GPS research found that over half of Americans say that the top way they engage with small business is through an in‑person shopping experience, and some of the most important aspects of their shop‑small experience is the personal interaction and attention they get as a result.

Historically, the portrait of a proud small business owner with their arms crossed has been the hallmark of small business visuals. While that still works well to show the personal aspect of local business, it’s also important to show customer interactions, or even show the businesses as a gathering place. Highlight its importance within the local community—which is part of what makes the business unique and important to sustain.
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