Local focus: How chambers of commerce are enticing shoppers to suburban downtowns

At local chambers of commerce around the suburbs, the quest has begun: To convince people to shop with their feet instead of their thumbs, in quaint storefronts instead of in big boxes.

In other words, how do they convince residents to buy local instead of ordering off or heading to a giant retailer like Target or Walmart?

How do they convince suburbanites to keep their money in their community instead of sending it off to some distant corporate headquarters?

“After COVID especially I think everyone realized how important local really is,” said Allison Orr, executive director of the Downtown Wheaton Association. “And everyone looks for things to do and ways to support their own community. And I think Wheaton has been exceptional at that. Our community has been so supportive of entrepreneurs and local business, and I think if you look at the composition of downtown Wheaton, you'll see that.”

You'll see it in Barrington too, where local merchants create the kind of hometown atmosphere that entices people to move to suburbs like Barrington, Wheaton, Glenview, Naperville and St. Charles.

“Absolutely, shopping local supports the small businesses, and you need shops that create character in your community,” said Suzanne Corr, Barrington Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO.

“They're adding local jobs to your community. They're also adding the gathering spaces that bring families together and enhance the quality of life in your community. Small businesses are owned and operated by local families who live, work and invest here. They're involved here, they raise their kids here, they pay their taxes here supporting infrastructure and schools in your community.”

Hope for the holidays

The holiday shopping season begins the day after Halloween, Orr said, and so does the buy local push. Orr, who arrived in Wheaton in February, has been busy ever since planning for a whole host of holiday events, including:

• A Night of Lights Park Lighting ceremony on Nov. 25;

• The Wheaton Christmas parade on Nov. 25;

• Downtown Wheaton Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Nov. 25;

• Santa and Mrs. Claus appearing on four consecutive Saturdays;

• 25 Days of Christmas, Dec. 1 through Dec. 25 and featuring a special offer from a different store each day;

• A Jolly Trolley linking downtown to Town Square in south Wheaton; and

• Holiday Movie Night on Dec. 22 with a public showing of Polar Express.

Similar events are going on all around the suburbs this season.

“We bring people down here with really cool events and then they stay because our business owners provide incredible service and unique products,” said Orr, who formerly worked in the local entertainment industry and is using that background on this job.

Effects of the pandemic

It's an especially timely issue in our COVID-19 world. The pandemic sent many shoppers to the internet, where they could buy and have their purchases delivered without personal contact with anyone who might be carrying the virus.

Local businesses adjusted, many upgrading their website and instituting curbside pickup or maybe even delivery.

“For example Autumn Geist who owns the Collective and Makery, she gets a lot of people coming from outside of the Lisle community to come and make a special trip to her store because of the products she sells,” state Rep. Terra Costa Howard, a Glen Ellyn Democrat, said. “And yeah, they need help. They were doing well and then the pandemic hit. They've all changed business models and people are a little bit slower to go back to physically going into stores and picking things up and buying that personal gift for their friends and family.”

Some suburbs are turning to large-scale investments in downtown to attract visitors. In Glen Ellyn, noted Costa Howard, they've invested in streetscape with new sidewalks, trees and shrubs. The goal is to make a charming downtown even more appealing.

“We're seeing that investment,” Costa Howard said of Glen Ellyn. “In other towns, they haven't gotten there yet. They're choosing to spend their dollars in a different way. Some during the pandemic used ARPA dollars to give grants to their local businesses to help them stay afloat, but that doesn't last forever.

“We as a community need to come together again and remind ourselves, stop at that local store for a gift. Stop at that local store to just pick something up.”

Of course, there are services you get by shopping in person that you can't get from a website.

“It is about the experience,” Corr said. “There is a tendency now to get out a lot more and maybe return to some of that thing. Don't forget you're going to get a much higher level of personal customer service when you go into a local shop.

“You're going to get ideas, you're going to get creativity. It's going to be an experience that makes you, hopefully, want to return to that shop. You don't get that personal touch when you're just doing, perhaps, all online buying.”

It's not just about the holidays

Buy-local efforts go into high gear during the holiday season, but the intent is to keep shoppers coming back year-round.

“I think it's easy to say we want people to spend money down here, and that is true. But we also want people to gain an awareness of all the things that we have to offer down here,” Orr said.

“ ... Even if people come down here and they say, ‘Oh, I didn't know that this store was here,' and then they come back in January and February, I consider that to be a huge accomplishment as well. And you can say that about any of our events year-round. We always want our events to draw traffic during the event, but really it's an awareness campaign so that people are here, they're walking around.”

Corr added: “Throughout the year we do encourage shop, dine and support local and we really ramp that up during the holiday season. As far as we're concerned all year-round is encourage small business support and shop, dine and support local, but we do definitely ramp it up during the holiday season, encouraging people to gift local, support local. Shop, dine, local here in the community.”

  Information for businesses in downtown Naperville. Paul Valade/
  Businesses along Third Street north of Franklin Street in Geneva. Paul Valade/
  Downtown Libertyville Paul Valade/
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