BETHESDA — State Comptroller Peter Franchot was here Wednesday, urging Marylanders to step away from their computers and shop locally this holiday season.
“If you live in Maryland, get off the Internet, come down, and patronize these wonderful local businesses,” said Franchot.
The comptroller visited three businesses: The Blue House, a gift and decor store; Fortuna’s, a shoe and luggage repair business; and Creative Parties Ltd., a stationary shop. Franchot did his best to help the local economy, purchasing items at two of the shops and making plans to return to the third.
Franchot acknowledged these local businesses are competing with online retailers that may offer better prices, but he stressed how important it is to help the local economy.
The comptroller will make multiple stops throughout the state, continuing a tradition from past years. This year’s visits may have a little more meaning, because Franchot is considering running for governor in 2014. When asked about this, he said he has not made up his mind, yet.
“We’re doing some polling, we’re doing some fundraising and I’ll make a decision sooner rather than later,” said Franchot, who would not define “sooner” in days, weeks or months.
Franchot may have won some votes as a man of the people, when he removed his shoe at Fortuna’s and placed it on the counter to show owner Terry Fortuna a deficiency near the lace. The small corner store has been open since 1938, and had a steady stream of customers during and after the comptroller’s visit.
Dipankar Chakravarti, a professor of marketing at the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University, agreed with Franchot that spending locally is important, and noted that it can also be beneficial to the shopper.
Positives include keeping dollars locally, allowing users to inspect goods, and giving a sense of security to buyers that when they pay for an item it is instantly in their hands, Chakravarti said. The big negative to counterbalance this, Chakravarti said, is that it is much easier to find the lowest price online.
“I think the price difference is one of those things that affects your pocket directly, but the local economy affects your pocket indirectly,” said Chakravarti.
Sometimes consumers are a little too nearsighted when it comes to shopping, Chakravarti said, and see the instant benefits of a lower price being more important than a thriving local economy.
“I think it’s a little myopic to sort of, you know, to sort of abandon your local economy in search of the last quarter that you can save in price,” he said. “On the other hand, one can’t really argue against the immediate benefits of sort of seeing a significantly lower price when you click on Amazon.com or something like that.”
The small business owners have mixed opinions about how government helps them compete against larger businesses and online retailers.
“The Internet is both my best friend and my worst enemy,” said Tracy Bloom Schwartz, owner of Creative Parties Ltd. She said while the 45-year-old shop generates much of its business from people who find it online, the Internet’s seemingly infinite stationary designs dwarf her shop’s approximately 1,000.
When asked if the state does enough to help small businesses, Bloom Schwartz said “absolutely not,” and pointed to the tax concessions and benefits large-scale projects get. “We don’t get that,” she said.
At The Blue House the story is very different, as the shop’s unique items help it avoid big box or online competition.
“We don’t carry anything that you would ever find at a Target,” said Jill Godfrey, manager of the 23-year-old business, the past 10 of which have been in Bethesda.
“People come here to see and touch and smell. Until they can do that online we’re not going to have a problem,” added Kathryn Hayes, a part-time employee.
All levels of government have been very helpful, Godfrey said, whose only complaint was that parking is too strictly enforced in front of the store.
Businesses in the area Franchot visited saw an increase in traffic the weekend after Thanksgiving, when the American-Express-sponsored Small Business Saturday pushed shoppers to support local economies.
While Bloom Schwartz heaped praise on the job American Express has done, she would like to see more efforts made to send shoppers to small businesses.
“I don’t think enough really is done to promote a shop-local, be-local, sort-of attitude,” said Bloom Schwartz. “It’s sad to me that a majority of the world (is) more concerned with the price than … experience or quality of service.”