Steve Mullen: Be thankful, shop local

November 25, 2009 4:14:00 PM

Steve Mullen - [email protected]


For many, this long weekend is about family and friends, turkey and football, and most of all, gathering around a table and giving thanks. 


It''s also about shopping. Black Friday isn''t actually the busiest shopping day of the year -- the Saturday before Christmas typically earns that honor -- but it''s the traditional kickoff of the Christmas shopping season. It''s opening day at the box office. It''s the ceremonial first pitch. 


Shop owners are watching that first pitch of the season very carefully. They''re looking for George W. Bush in Yankee Stadium after 9/11. They want to see us collectively thumb our noses to hardship, stride to the mound with confidence, wind up and deliver a perfect strike. 


Yet many experts expect our ball to fall short of the plate. 


According to several polls out there, most of us plan to spend about the same this year as last. This year''s National Retail Federation''s forecast said as much. Locally, shoppers The Dispatch talked to during open house sales in Columbus a few weeks ago said the same thing -- this Christmas will look a lot like last year''s. 


Even so, we may see more crowds on Black Friday this year. Why? Because shoppers are getting more and more thrifty. We''re sniffing out deals. Marketers call us "thrifty researchers" -- a consumer segment that has grown about 30 percent nationwide just this year. We''re the folks who actively seek out bargains. We may be buying with cash, but we''re getting the most for our buck. 


And when do the best deals of the year kick in? Black Friday. 


If you felt your old hernia open up when you picked up the paper this morning, you know what we''re talking about. (OK, the papers aren''t as thick as they used to be, but everything is relative.) Deals are all over the place. 


Locally, retailers are hoping Black Friday won''t lead to a blue Christmas. And, as a city, we can hardly afford one. 


The state Tax Commission has returned less sales tax money to the city this year, so far, than it has in the last eight. We''re on track for the worst earnings year since 2001. Just comparing this year to last, through October, we''ve spent $39 million less at Lowndes County businesses (an 11 percent decrease). 


What can we do? Many households have no choice but to spend less. We''re no different -- that was an easy decision. Since we have kids, the tough part is pulling them onto the lap and explaining why Santa will be dropping off fewer presents. "You see, Santa was overinvested in bank stock. He thought Citi was going under, and he sold at the bottom. Santa''s workshop is a toxic asset. The elves got downsized; those left are doing more with less. So, don''t look for that iPod Touch." 


What we can do, though, is shop locally when we do spend.  


We have much to be thankful for in Columbus, retail-wise. We have lots of great locally owned specialty shops downtown, along Highway 45, and elsewhere that could use our love. We have an Old Navy and a Belk''s and a Reed''s and a Penney''s. We have a Sears and a couple of Fred''s, and of course, a Wal-Mart. We have a lot of options for city our size. 


And we have a hunger for deals. They''re out there. Especially on Friday. 


Let''s all be thankful for that, and let''s shop in Columbus. Because we''re all sitting around the same table.

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.