The Power of Shopping Local

I live without a car and have for more than a decade, so I tend to shop local. For various reasons, I also tend to eat a lot of food from eateries and delis, often as takeout.

Once in a while, I order stuff online, but I am certainly not driving to the nearest bigger city to check out their mall and their restaurants. I also have a serious medical condition, so long before there was a global pandemic, germ control was a big part of my life.

Having a serious medical condition has other implications. My personal practices skew towards budget-friendly and time efficient as well, among other things.

In part for reasons of germ control, I prefer going through self checkout. That prevents cashiers from licking their fingers to help them open my bags and thereby sharing their germs very liberally with me and all my food stuffs.

When I and my adult sons first got to Aberdeen, the Safeway in downtown had four self-checkout registers but they were hardly used. One of the consequences of that is that every single register with a cashier had a long line pretty much any time of the day or night, even when the store wasn't that busy.

When I or one of my sons went shopping, we typically went through self checkout. And people standing in line would see one of us go through self checkout and get on our merry way while they were still waiting.

They would stare and you could see the gears turning in their minds.

We weren't here very long when that began to change. With us using the self checkout regularly, those registers became more popular and all lines in the store began to get shorter.

Shortly before the pandemic got going in earnest, the Safeway upgraded its self checkout from four registers to six registers with a much better layout. This may well have helped keep infection numbers lower in the entire county because this town is a major shopping hub for rural residents and other towns that are even smaller.

The Walmart upgraded its self checkout shortly after we moved here, but that may be coincidence and may have nothing to do with our shopping behavior. Our behavior did seem to make the self checkout at Walmart more popular as well and that likely also helped limit the spread of infection.

From what I gather, this county was a relative oasis of calm during the storm that was 2020. My understanding is we had low infection rates and were also spared a lot of other drama that was raging through a lot of other cities, like big protests, police violence against protestors and so forth.

When the pandemic began, I happened to have more money on hand than usual and then also got a stimulus check. So I was unusually flush with funds for the first few weeks of the pandemic.

I made a point of going to the local Little Caesar's every day. I did so because I wanted to make sure they survived the pandemic.

It was clear rather quickly that the pandemic would be hard on the restaurant sector. Aberdeen is a wonderful little town in large part due to having a lot of shopping and a lot of eateries for such a small town and I was concerned about us losing too many commercial establishments.

It's easier to keep things alive than to try to bring them back from the dead. I like Little Caesar's and didn't want to lose them.

I wanted that establishment in particular to survive in part because they make their dough fresh everyday in house and their cooking methods result in a less acidic product than other pizza chains. Both of those are important to me because of my medical situation and I tolerate their food better than that of most pizza chains and can stand to eat it more frequently because of that.

They also already had a Pizza Portal in the local store, but no one had ever used it. Everyone just showed up, ordered in person and milled around in their small lobby. It was always crowded.

So the pandemic started and the local Little Caesar's was pretty dead. I would walk down there daily and they were twiddling their thumbs and very worried that it was going to go out of business and they would be out of a job at a time when job hunting would be a bigger problem than usual.

I made a point of learning how to use the Pizza Portal -- because it is de facto a contactless means to get your food -- and I chatted up both the Little Caesar's and the idea of their Pizza Portal as a contactless form of takeout.

I was chatting this up to other people as best I could locally and "generally" in online spaces where I hung. I also talked to people about calling or ordering online and picking up takeout being a germ control "best practice" in my experience as someone with an incurable condition.

I further emphasized that the Pizza Portal already existed and using it meant you never had to deal with a person at all. You could order online, walk in, enter your code, get your food and leave.

One day, I was walking home carrying a pizza and someone on a skateboard asked me -- without getting too close to me -- "Are they open?" and I was able to enthusiastically say "Yes! They are!" I also know from long experience that people driving by in cars will notice me walking places.

The fact that I live without a car meant that I was carrying home my takeout while walking down the sidewalk. Without me having to say one word or make any particular effort to tell people, people could SEE with their own eyes "There's a pizza place open around here. And it...uh...looks to be the Little Caesar's!"

After the pandemic started, the local Little Caesar's removed the chairs from its lobby and added hand sanitizer and a plastic barrier between customers and the cash register. People began calling and ordering online and stopped milling around in a crowd in their small lobby.

If they order in person and have to wait, they tend to go sit in their vehicle or stand outside the store on the sidewalk where you can social distance. Given my medical situation, I found all of this to be a vast improvement for my life and going to Little Caesar's became a much less onerous task for me.

Pretty soon, I would go in and instead of talking my ear off, the staff were too busy to talk with me. Mine was not the only order in the Pizza Portal and there was a row of tickets visible behind the cashier and she was on the phone taking another order.

At the start, one day I was told "We only sold eight pizzas all of yesterday." After business picked up, I got told "Can't talk. We did (something over 120) pizzas in two hours yesterday. That's more than a pizza a minute."

He was cutting and boxing pizzas as fast as he could.

So I am confident that I basically saved the local Little Caesar's. It's likely I also helped save the local Denny's and the local Pizza Hut.

My son tells me that Denny's is a chain that has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Our local Denny's is still open and it's one of the eateries we frequent.

We do curb side pickup with both of those establishments. Because of my medical situation, I would rather them bring it out to me than go in and pick it up.

But I don't have a car to sit in while waiting. This means I am standing in front of their door for a few minutes waiting for them to bring it out while cars are driving past and their occupants can see me standing there and infer "They are open!"

I didn't get much takeout from Pizza Hut for a few months there, but that changed a few weeks back. It wasn't any one thing, but various details in my life skewed things towards ordering from Pizza Hut instead of Little Caesar's more often than not for maybe two months.

We have reason to believe their business picked up substantially once we began doing that. Their hours seem to be back to 'normal' business hours after having been curtailed at one point. It's possible their hours were temporarily curtailed because they didn't have enough business to keep the doors open and lights on all day.

The Denny's had also made (or simply experienced) some changes before the pandemic hit and those changes were most likely a consequence of us going there. I used to go sit at the counter and eat while waiting on takeout for my sons or we would simply order takeout and one of us would pick up the order.

The first few weeks or months that we lived here, the Denny's always had a line to get in. They ask that you wait to be seated and you always had to wait at this one even if they weren't that busy.

But they don't ask you to wait if you are going to sit at the counter instead of a table. So after we moved here, we began seeing more people sitting at the counters and more takeout orders than just ours and the line to get in went down while the establishment was generally busier and seemed to be making more money.

Some months after we moved here, they were closed one day because they were upgrading their kitchen grill. We saw the same thing happen at the Little Caesar's in Fresno: After we began eating there, it got more popular and then they suddenly were doing uprades and improvements to the place a few months after it became more popular.

I suspect there is a connection there. You need to have money to cover upgrades and confidence that it will be worth the money spent.

So if you are interested in having a thriving local economy, one thing you can do is simply set the example and shop local and model some Best Practices (like using the self checkout or skipping the line by ordering online). You may not need to say one word to other people for this to help the community grow stronger.

First, the dollars you spend locally directly helps the local economy thrive. Second, other people may just start doing what you do because they see it works better than what they are doing or they suddently realize "You can do that?" and they just didn't know before they saw you doing it.

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