_ As we continue to dodge the effects of an on-going recession, 2011 demonstrated that Americans reached their boiling point with both corporate greed and politics. We saw Occupy Wall Street lead to passionate protests nationwide and presidential candidates struggle with what average Americans want. While the message and purpose of these gatherings may have lacked a cohesive focus, one thing was apparent: too many of us feel we’re not getting our cut of the pie. It seems that only a small percentage of our population is allowed in the kitchen these days.

While I by no means endorse the notion that all corporations are evil machines, nor do I think OWS was the answer, I do see a necessary shift in a big box mentality that has gotten out of control. Our nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer businesses who maintain power over the lives of an enormous percentage of citizens; capable of dangling employment by a thread when the bottom line starts to thin. The trend of large companies to diversify their ownership across multiple industries has also gone too far. We now have an abundance of choice in terms of product diversity, however our options for where to conveniently make purchases are inversely declining. This has ramifications on price point control and access that put small businesses at a severe disadvantage.

On a positive note, what grew out of the frustration of the 2008 recession and was amplified in 2011 are two significant movements.

Specialized Online Boutiques
Big box companies are typically incapable of giving consumers one product offering. To keep shareholders happy and profits rising, they must add to their product portfolio. At a certain growth point, most corporations are forced to shift from their core offering and bring new products to the marketplace to protect themselves long term. Often, a company will find that their secondary launches out-do their primary product and evolve to make it their priority. This thinking exemplifies the fact that when a business gets too big, it is required to function solely for profit. Often times, social and environmental impact, employee well-being and product quality suffer as a result.

I am noticing a shift in how average consumers are spending the limited funds they have. As our cars, clothes and apartment décor all started to look similar it seems that we grew tired of being force fed. We began looking for fresh and new while finding the same old cookie cutter products at the few retailers we regularly had access to. The cool, responsible, contemporary, vintage and classy goods we desired were all beyond most American’s price point and resting in the luxury category. We were aware that the Internet had vast aisles filled with potential shopping finds, but we were never sure where to start or look and Amazon or Overstock only seemed to link us back to the products found in the same big box stores that rested together in clumps off the interstate.

Then, Groupon and LivingSocial took deals digital and made coupon clipping trendy again. The discount list-serv movement was born. The communal buying mentality brought us highly focused list servs, such as Fab, that link purveyors of specialized goods with eager buyers at discounted prices. Etsy and like-minded sites revolutionized the handmade industry. Zaarly made buying/selling hyper-local. We now have incredible curators of well-crafted, specialized and accessible goods at our fingertips and word is spreading virally to bring them to more consumers.

In 2012 I only see this trend continuing. The US Commerce Department reported sales of $48.24 billion dollars in Q3 of 2011. This is up over 13% from Q3 of 2010. With the holiday stats from Q4 still pending, all signs point to continued growth in the online shopping sector. Innovative boutique sellers will continue to find opportunities to carve out their niche of this skyrocketing retail foothold.

Communal Commerce
Outside of the online model, this trend toward small group economics is being brought to life in cities of all sizes. Terms such as: co-op, free-trade, locally grown and organic (while often misused) each reflect a concerned movement away from mass production and distribution and toward more conscious spending. 2011 saw a rise in the number of communal gardens, backyard chicken coops and even free curbside mini-libraries. Crop-shares are also becoming commonplace amongst families with access to local farmers. In Minneapolis, employees keep Hard Times Café running as both employees and co-owners; just one example of dozens of worker cooperatives functioning in the US. What we’re clearly realizing is that there was some logic to the local economies of yesteryear.

I believe we are actually in a golden age as consumers-- if we choose to be involved. We now live in an era where spending $4 on a fresh baked pie a few blocks away is as easy as having an intricately designed baking pan sent to us from Portugal for 40% off. What smart consumerism comes down to falls on each of us. If we engage the marketplace, investigate our options and decide what is best for our budget, values and needs we can find an intelligent balance for where we send our dollars that has less strain on planet earth, is better for the economy and results in more satisfying purchases.  Larger brands will follow-suit in finding ways to deliver their goods on a local level. A more responsible consumer will thus result in more responsible producers.

The timing is ripe for specialty services and products to continue to steal their share of the pie. As we take commerce back to the community we strengthen our neighborhoods, infrastructure and lives. If you have an entrepreneurial venture you’ve been considering, do your research and find the avenues for distribution that can cost-effectively bring you to the marketplace. What better year than 2012?



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