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Eve Pearlman: Keeping it local

Submitted by on 1, November 27, 2009 – 6:00 am2 Comments

In deference to today being Black Friday – which I understand is a very big shopping day – I asked some of my favorite Alameda retailers how they’re hanging in there and what they’ve noticed about people’s shopping habits with this whole economic collapse and everything.

“Shopping has completely changed,” said the always-warm and friendly Chelsea O’Hara. O’Hara has run 3 Wishes cards and gifts on Park Street for nearly seven years – during which time I’ve purchased owl earrings for my daughter, ghost-shaped Halloween lights, plastic dreidels filled with bubble bath, polka-dotted socks for newborns, and the warmest, fuzziest bathrobe ever for my mother.

“People look more and spend less,” said O’Hara when asked about the mood of her customers. “And they’re definitely looking for value.” Where people may once have bought a gift and a card, said O’Hara, now they’re likely just to buy a card. Missing also, she said, are some bigger spenders: She used to have a group of women who joked about how they could never get out of the store without spending $100. “Now the $100 club is like the $30 club,” said O’Hara.

For the holidays this year, O’Hara is stocking more children’s gifts, figuring people will reduce their giving to adults before they do the same for children. And she’s continuing her long-standing emphasis on function. “It needs to do something,” she said. “It’s a candle, you’re going to burn it. Or it’s soap, you’re going to wash with it.”

O’Hara said she’s also been turning to new marketing methods like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. “I’ve had friends visit San Francisco from the East Coast – people I haven’t seen since high school –  and they’ll come over to Alameda and shop,” she said. “It’s very cool.”

Down the block, Space Happy opened last June under the direction of Gretchen McMann (who ran Happy Trails, both in Alameda and San Francisco for 15 years). McMann said the new retail climate has her challenging herself to find the best, most relevant, most desirable items she can.

“It is certainly more challenging now,” she said. “It challenges you to stay as real to your authentic retail self as possible.”

Space Happy has a bright, open, cheerful feel and there’s an emphasis on materials you can use: craft kits and books and other project-focused merchandise. “We have a do-it-yourself mentality with something for everyone,” said McMann, who uses a keen sense for merchandise to locate unusual and novel items. “You won’t find what you find here in Target,” she said.

Top sellers right now, said McMann, include Alameda T-shirts, a rubber spatula shaped like a finger, and a knife shaped like a table saw. Space Happy also has blow-up fruitcakes and change purses shaped like pizza and tacos. I myself am a fan of McMann’s candy selection, a holdover from the retro-focused Happy Trails, which includes Pop Rocks, Lemonheads and Necco wafers.

Nowadays, said McMann, people seem to be interested in looking forward rather than back. They’re looking for cheerful, upbeat, bright, useful. “I took the happy from Happy Trails and made it more fresh,” she told me. “But the key element is ‘happy.'”

Like O’Hara, McMann said whatever it is that they sell has got to be functional. And both merchants said they’re more careful now, post-crash, with what they stock. Both know that Alamedans and Alameda’s bustling downtown are of fundamental importance to their success.

“Quite frankly,” O’Hara told me, “I think Alameda is doing better than a lot of places. If I were located someplace like Stockton I think I would be closed.”

Support your local merchants and your city coffers this holiday season.

Contact Eve Pearlman at eve@theislandofalameda.com.


  • Steve says:

    I have mixed feelings about this whole "condition of retailers" issue. On the one hand, I agree that we should really make an effort to shop locally and support local merchants — many of these folks are our friends and neighbors. Also, given the high unemployment rate in California, the last thing we want to see is more people in the retailing industry lose their jobs. But, on the other hand, I'd like to see us come out of this economic collapse with less of a "consumer" mentality and more of a "saver" mentality. That, necessarily, means buying less stuff.

  • Chelsea says:

    Steve, I couldn't agree more. However, I guess what needs to be emphasized is that when thinking about purchasing a gift for a friend, people need to condsider shopping local, indepent busninesses rather than driving 20 miles to Target in Hayward or shopping online. Each dollar spent on at your local businesses returns 3 times more money to Alameda's local economy then one spent at a chainstore. Saving can also meaning saving less on gas to drive to another city where tax dollars will be left in their city. Independent businesses consume less land, carry more locally-made products and are located closer to residents and that creates less traffic and air pollution. Obviously there are items that we can't get on the island and must shop elsewhere for those items, but for the items they do need , it would be great if they could shop Alameda's independents. Thanks!

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