Edna McCall used to love traveling east. Where others might picture towering cities, McCall liked to find the small towns. She’d hop from one to another, visiting the homegrown shops unique to their town squares. Now, she says, so many of those small towns are gone. So many of the shops are chain stores.
“Everything is starting to look alike,” said McCall, owner of her own little place, the Flag Store, in downtown Crystal Lake.
The growth of big box stores is one reason McCall advocates for locals to keep their tax dollars within their respective communities. A dollar toward a local business is a dollar toward growing that community, she says. Across the county, with Christmas fast approaching, McHenry County businesses and municipalities are in a fight for holiday dollars – no small piece of the yearly retail and sales tax pie.
Between 20 and 40 percent of yearly sales of small and midsized retailers take place within the last two months of the year, according to the National Retail Federation.
“We want to make sure that people are choosing Woodstock first,” said Cort Carlson, the city’s director of community and economic development. “Especially our local residents.”
Business owners and community leaders go about reaching that goal in varying ways.
In Woodstock, the city supports merchants with several events throughout the holiday season. A lighting ceremony, a kids day and a Santa parade, among other events, help bring people to the Square, where crowds drive sales.
“You don’t have a lot of cost behind them on any level,” Carlson said. “The city’s cost comes in just the maintaining of the Square and providing, hopefully, a positive environment for the stores to thrive and be successful.”
Crystal Lake has designated tax money directly toward measures to draw retail in during the holidays.
During the worst of the economic slump, the city designated about $100,000 toward rebates for local consumers through its Shop Crystal Lake program. The first 3,333 people to submit an application saying they’d spent $300 in Crystal Lake stores received a $30 gift certificate to Crystal Lake businesses.
“That was amidst the depth of the challenging economic times, and we wanted to do what we could at the time to support local business,” Assistant Director of Economic Development James Richter said.
The city since has reduced funds to the program. This year, it has budgeted $7,500 toward prizes for the holiday program. Those who spend $200 in town can enter to win gift certificates ranging from $50 to $1,000.
With so many cities bunched together in McHenry County, the program gives shoppers an incentive to choose Crystal Lake, Richter said. The city usually gets about 5,000 entries.
“It’s been incredibly successful,” he said.
As for the push and pull going on among McHenry County businesses, Huntley Chamber of Commerce Chief Rita Slawek said there’s been a recent move toward marketing gifts of “necessity.”
Companies like mechanic shops and hair salons are compelling their customers to buy gift cards for those on their lists.
“That’s going to be something that someone is spending their money on anyway,” Slawek said.
Other companies offer deals such as getting a free gift card with the purchase of four others, she said.
According to a survey by American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business, local shops are off to a strong start this holiday season. Locally owned stores brought in $5.5 billion in sales on Small Business Saturday, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the survey found.
If downtown Crystal Lake was any indication, local people took the day seriously, McCall said.
“We had a really good day,” she said.