WESTERLY — One of the customers in Walle Hutton's Rhode Island Surf Co. shop on High Street stood out from the rest on Tuesday. It was U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse who picked up a hooded shop sweatshirt for someone on his shopping list during a jaunt through the downtown area.
The third-term senator was joined by a cadre consisting of other members of the state's congressional delegation, federal officials, members of the state's philanthropic community, and local business leaders for a walking tour aimed at encouraging shoppers to descend on the area this weekend for Small Business Saturday.
Organized by the federal Small Business Administration in conjunction with the Rhode Island Foundation and the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, the tour started with remarks from Whitehouse, his colleague, U.S. Jack Reed, U.S. Rep. James Langevin and others.
Hutton was thrilled to welcome the officials into the store he opened in May.
"It's a cool way to meet people in the Congress as well as for them to see small businesses. I think it's very beneficial for small business owners as well as for the community to get the exposure," Hutton said.
The speaking portion of the tour focused on the economics of shopping in stores that are owned by local people.
"When you shop in a big box your dollar bounces once in the cash register at the big box and then goes right of state to wherever the headquarters is, but if you shop at Herbwise the owner might go to Woodees and buy something or go down to the Black Duck Gallery or go to Cahill & Co. or to Westerly Jewelry and the funds circulate in the community," Whitehouse said.
In addition to boosting the local economy, Neil Steinberg, president of the Rhode Island Foundation, said choosing to support local businesses is an important community gesture. "The point about the financial benefit is well made, but it's also civic. It is the small business owners who are the Little League and soccer coaches and the chairs of the Chamber and the people who run for local office and who give back to the community."
The tour stopped at Miceli's Furniture, Nigrelli's Jewelry, Vintage Cigar Lounge, the Malted Barley, Melissa Ashley Brides, Bella Vita Salon, Westerly Jewelry, and the surf shop.
Small businesses are an essential component of the community's fabric, Langevin said.
"I know how important small businesses are to our people and the challenges that small businesses face. If we don't support them they will go away and that will forever change the character of our state and the community ... these are our neighbors and our friends who are working in these shops," Langevin said.
Celebrated each year on the Saurday after Thanksgiving, Small Business Saturday was developed and is promoted by the SBA. On the nine prior occasions the day has been celebrated, an estimated $103 billion was spent nationwide with small businesses, the agency said.
Mark S. Hayward, Rhode Island district director for the SBA since 2000, said that the agency's research shows that 67 cents of every $1 spent in a small business "comes back to the small business community," with 44 cents going to wages and benefits in the local business and 23 cents spent by the business owner at other small businesses in the community. The same research shows just 13 cents for every $1 spent at big box stores stays in the local economy, Hayward said.
About $17.8 billion was spent last year in the more than 7,000 communities that participated in Small Business Saturday, according to Wendell G. Davis, SBA regional administrator.
Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce volunteers will be deployed to businesses throughout the region on Saturday looking for local shoppers in small businesses and presenting $10 gift certificates to more than 30 lucky shoppers. Lisa Konicki, the chamber's president, said Small Business Saturday aligns with one of the chamber's mantras.
"In the office we say ixnay eBay, Amazon be gone. We want to keep your money local. Small businesses drive the economy, small businesses create jobs, small businesses create dreams for entrepreneurs who want to realize a new beginning for themselves," Konicki said.
A chamber program that makes gift certificates available for local businesses generates about $260,000 per year for local businesses, Konicki said. "Please shop small, not just Saturday but all year long," Konicki said.
Joseph Miceli, owner of Miceli's Furniture, called Small Business Saturday "an important community building day and I appreciate the congressional delegation taking the time to come to visit Westerly to highlight small business and the community that supports the businesses. It validates and acknowledges the support."
Over the course of more than two decades in his current location, Miceli said he has been "gratified to see the town blossom. When we moved here in 1996 the town was nowhere near as vibrant as it is today."
As new businesses, restaurants and bars open up in the downtown, an energy and sense of partnership builds, Miceli said.
"It does create traffic and opportunity. There's a synergy that has developed that lifts all boats," Miceli said.