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The 'Shop Small Challenge': Our reporter takes her gift list to Main Street

Last year, Newsday's Daysi Calavia-Robertson took on a monthlong "No Spend Challenge," and now, in time for the holidays, she is doing a "Shop Small Challenge." The mission? To forgo big box stores and buy Christmas gifts and décor from small makers, independent retailers and local boutiques.  Credit: Newsday / Daysi Calavia-Robertson; Kendall Rodriguez

I could barely believe it myself when I said it: "This year I'm not buying Christmas gifts at Target."

I'm not going to Marshalls or TJ Maxx, not to Kohl's or Burlington — not to any of my favorite big-box stores.

But wait ... did staying in for so long strip me of the will to live?

Are these quarantine blues, or did I somehow suddenly lose my "shopper" gene? None of the above. Trust me, that gene is intact. It's just that this holiday, I vowed to let my credit card explore new horizons. I wanted to say "charge it" at places neither of us had ever been.

This year has been particularly hard on small businesses and, as a business reporter, I've been saddened by just how badly hit Nassau and Suffolk entrepreneurs have been. Most are struggling and more than 125 downtown storefronts were shuttered by early November, according to a survey of 33 business districts done by the group Vision Long Island.

As a Long Islander with a Christmas list longer than a CVS receipt, I thought I should put my money where my mouth is.

That's the basic idea behind the "Shop Small Challenge." Drive past the "big guys" and right to Main Street, shop local, repeat. Sounds easy enough, but I did have some fears. How would I, a queen of the clearance aisle, make sure my wallet survived? Doesn't the "B" in boutique stand for "big bucks"?

The good thing is, it seems like I may be in good company: 38% of consumers said they planned to shop at smaller retailers throughout the holiday season, according to a recent Adobe Analytics survey.

Bonus in a snow globe

I set off on my mission to shop locally on Nov. 28, Small Business Saturday, with my kids, FDR, 5, and Carolina, 3, in tow. Destination: Babylon Village. Hitch LI, a boutique known for showcasing the wares of hundreds of Long Island makers, was our first stop.

Before even stepping foot in the store, we ran into none other than Santa. Inside an inflatable snow globe set up near Hitch's back entrance, Santa "ho ho ho-ed," waved and posed for socially distanced pictures with shoppers. Who was more excited, me or the kids? I won't say. But Hitch owner Joseph DeBello says it doesn't matter.

"That's the whole point," he said. "To get people excited about coming in ... to give them another reason [to visit], make them smile and make it worth their while, especially this year. I think that's very important."

But DeBello wasn't the only one pulling out all the stops to attract customers on Small Business Saturday. Throughout the Island, scores of small stores and local chambers of commerce put on events in the run-up to Hanukkah and Christmas that included prize giveaways, store promotions and storefront decorating contests, as a way to lure customers lost to large chains while the small shops remained shut for months in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

As for me, they had me at Santa. I asked him for some "pesos for presents," and made my way into the store with my little elves. Once inside, there was so much to look at, it was overwhelming — artwork, candles, coasters, cheese boards, jewelry, ornaments, T-shirts, wine glasses and lots more.

And of course, after repeatedly telling the kids "don't touch," I discreetly picked up item after item, my eyeballs quickly scanning for a price. I spotted a large, white candle on a wooden base that I absolutely loved. $30. Ouch. For a candle?, I thought. I lectured myself on why this candle made by a local artisan was most certainly worth the $30, but then put it back on the shelf.

So, how did I make out? Well, I'm happy to report that, though it is true that many items were too expensive for my pocketbook, I did find tons of things I liked that were very affordable.

I can't list every item I bought at Hitch because I'd like to think those on my "nice list" read Newsday and don't want to give away what their presents are. But I caved and bought myself a Christmas ornament for $12. I couldn't resist — it's the Grinch's hand holding a blue mask with the words "2020 stink stank stunk" on it. DeBello said it was hand-painted by Sea Cliff maker Katharine Rondeau.

My total bill at Hitch came out to $60.97. I usually spend way more than that on an average trip to Target, so I walked out of there feeling pretty proud of myself. An added bonus: My kids didn't break anything.

Way beyond Amazon

Full disclosure: I'm not an Amazon shopper. I'm probably the only person I know my age, which is 30-ish, who has not bought a single item on Amazon.

With that said, I can't deny how convenient shopping on the retail giant is. And I understand why, especially in 2020, when politicians and health sector leaders are urging us to stay home to slow the spread of the virus, it can make more sense than ever to "add to cart."

Even so, I know Jeff Bezos doesn't need my money, and I also know just how much even one purchase can mean to a small business — I've interviewed local entrepreneurs who've told me the "ping" of online orders coming in has at times been enough to bring them to tears, tears of joy. Amazon isn't the only website I can conveniently shop at, so I set out to find the sites of local shops and keep plowing away at my gift list.

I was interested in seeing if I could take advantage of the Black Friday weekend and score some online sale and discount codes. I crossed my fingers and toes and went on Instagram.

The first thing I did was search the hashtags #longislandshop, #longislandshopping and #longislandshops. Bingo! Together, the three resulted in about 13,000 posts. I started scrolling through pictures and discovered dozens of stores I knew I'd like, from Wit & Whim in Port Washington to Ooh La La Boutique in Sayville.

At Wit & Whim, I was impressed at the sheer variety of craft products, from magnets to mugs to makeup. The makeup was made by Three Headed Cat, a cosmetics and skin care products business founded by Mastic resident Amanda Clary.

A Long Island makeup maker?! No way, I thought. And her products are vegan and cruelty-free. How lucky am I? My sister Pili is a makeup artist, and she's vegetarian — this'll be right up her alley. I didn't hesitate to click on the link on @ThreeHeadedCat's Instagram bio, which quickly redirected me to her website. I scrolled through her offerings and a few clicks later I was inputting my credit card information.

A lip tint was $4.50, a coffee scrub was $6, a dark-colored nail polish named the "Zelda Fitzgerald" was $10. Nothing to break the bank here. But I was sad a blue snowflake-shaped bath soap I wanted was marked "sold out." After typing in my discount codes — oh yeah, that's right! — 2020Yule and FreeShip, I checked out. Total spent? $20.58.

I shopped at a few other stores, always searching for that "sale" or "clearance" tab first, of course, but kept thinking about that sold-out bath soap at Three Headed Cat.

I wonder if Clary will restock it next week, I thought. Maybe I'll message her. And yes, I knew Clary was the owner. I saw photos and videos of her on her company's Instagram. She looked approachable, so I went ahead with a DM. "Oh yeah, that's a bestseller, but don't worry, I'll let you know as soon as I make some more," she replied almost immediately.

The need for ease

Sadly, not all LI small business owners are as social media savvy as Clary. I found myself scrolling away from profiles that didn't link to websites or from websites that didn't showcase the same products recently advertised on their social media pages. As a shopper, I just want it to be easy, you know?

Some boutiques made use of Instagram's new ''Shop" feature, which allows users to click on a photo, view the item's price and with another click be redirected to the company's website, streamlining the shopping process. Others left me wondering if they've yet to hear of such a feature.

A few days later, the packages started rolling in, and I don't think I've ever been so happy to get mail. I almost forgot that nothing in the boxes was actually for me. But I can't deny there's a thrill in giving, especially when the gifts are so "custom." Just another perk of shopping from small makers.

For my sister-in-law, I snagged a T-shirt with the word "worthy" emblazoned on it (she has the word tattooed on her foot) from Cotton Candy Print Shop, a Fire Island-based graphic T-shirt company owned by husband and wife duo Nicholas and Rhona La Rosa, along with a cute pair of quartz earrings made by Monica Guerrero of Pure Nature Designs in Bayport, and for my husband, Matt, my whiz in the kitchen, homemade seasoning blends from Babylon business Good Clean Karma, founded by Kareema Fernan.

All in all, I've spent about $300 and only have my kids left to shop for. They've been running around screaming the whole time I've been typing this, so maybe they'll get coal and I'll call it a day. Kidding! There's a toy store in my neighborhood I've been meaning to check out.

For me, the big take-aways: There's wonderful variety and creativity out there beyond the big-box stores. And, as it turns out, shopping locally can be as affordable and convenient as shopping at large retailers.

But I think the real magic of this experience is that it shifted my mindset from shopping with locals to "support" them to buying their products because I believe they're adding true value to my life and the lives of my loved ones. I plan to continue challenging myself to be more intentional about where I spend my money and shop small as much as possible. Now that I know my wallet can survive it, why not?

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