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Spreading the ‘Shop Local’ Message

Looking for ways to get a local community to eat, drink and shop locally? The first step to a successful “shop local” campaign may be bringing together businesses — and listening to their needs.

“Start with the businesses,” said Avery Spears-Mahoney, executive director of North Augusta Forward, the downtown revitalization organization of North Augusta. “Building that collaborative spirit and support for each other is the way to make it successful.”

Cities and towns around the state have realized the important role their central business districts play in creating a vibrant city, and their communications campaigns have taken different forms.


Greenville's Shop Downtown promotions in the 2023 Christmas season made use of a a local golden retreiver, 
Teddy, with an existing social media following. Photo: City of Greenville

In Greenville, the city’s economic development and communications departments, as well as Visit Greenville SC, came together for a “Shop Downtown” campaign to help businesses recover after the pandemic. It began in 2021 with a Christmas holiday shopping emphasis, but has expanded to include Valentine’s Day and other seasonal events. It uses everything from window clings and branded canvas bags to print, digital and social media marketing — with an emphasis on Instagram posts.

“Instagram is where we found our footing,” said Beth Brotherton, Greenville’s director of communications and engagement. 

The city partnered with downtown businesses for Instagram giveaways. To be eligible to win prizes, contest participants are required to follow the city and any local business that donates an item. The campaign took off, and led to social media growth both for the city and individual businesses.

“The first year we had to wrangle businesses and say, ‘Hey, would you like to give something?’ Now, even the local arena this year said, ‘We’ve seen what you guys are doing, would you partner with us? We want to do something amazing for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra,’” Brotherton said.

That resulted in an Instagram giveaway kickoff to the holiday season that included tickets to the concert, a local bike taxi ride, dinner at a downtown restaurant and other items. Plus, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra saw the promotion and donated a signed guitar to the winner.

The city also used local Instagram influencers for the campaign, and this year added an Instagram influencer dog.

Greenville made a point to hire a professional photographer for downtown photo shoots with models. The photos have appeared in paid advertising for high-end magazines and local publications. This year, a two-page ad in a local weekly paper showcased the photographs and included storytelling with local business owners.

“It gave their perspectives on why it’s important for people to shop local,” Brotherton said.

“Ultimately people do want to be cheerleaders for local. Sometimes they just don’t know what’s available or it seems too difficult. So, one of the things we do is add in free parking in all city garages. We make that part of the promotion.”

The campaign also highlights the impact downtown shopping has on a community.

“We looked at what can you do to raise awareness of not only why it’s important to shop downtown — that 70 cents on the dollar stays here — but also tell them ‘We’ve got cool stuff here.’ And if you want these cool businesses to be here next Christmas or next summer, let’s get serious about making this a vibrant downtown community.”

Brotherton’s advice for other cities: take advantage of strategic opportunities and be mindful of what type of retail the city has cultivated, incentivize shoppers through giveaways, talk to business owners about what they want and need, and invest in professional photography.


Main Street Hartsville's Destination Downtown campaign entered shoppers into a drawing for a $300 shopping 
trip among the district's businesses. Photo: Main Street Hartsville.

In Hartsville, a “Heart of the Holidays” festival started in 2023 to encourage people to support downtown businesses, said Matt Winburn, Main Street Hartsville manager. Hartsville has long had a tree lighting the Thursday before Thanksgiving, but expanded it to a three-day festival to draw people downtown.

On the first night, businesses stay open late, with the tree lighting, dance performances, an artisan market and events at the stores. 

“It brings upwards of 10 to 15,000 people from around the Pee Dee to Hartsville for that one night alone,” Winburn said. “Businesses see a great return. The main goal for that is we want to get our businesses in the black before Black Friday, before the holiday season even starts.”

On Friday, a wine and art walk was added, a partnership between Main Street Hartsville, a local arts nonprofit and about 15 downtown businesses that stayed open late to host artists, offer wine tastings and sell their products. The third day featured a morning carnival and craft show and an evening holiday ball. While the nighttime event was not downtown, Hartsville encouraged people to shop locally for their outfits and accessories.

“It was the first year for it, and businesses said they saw so many great rewards. They look forward to us doing it next year,” Winburn said. “Next year we’ll have additional activities now [that] we’ve tested the waters and know that we can pull this off.”

Hartsville also promotes its downtown through events during the year. A scarecrow decorating contest encourages downtown business and nonprofits to place a scarecrow downtown and encourages the community to walk the streets of downtown and vote for their favorite. A similar event is done for holiday window decorations for Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

In the past, residents have voted on Facebook for their favorites, “. . . but this year we really wanted to be sure people were going into the stores. So we made up QR codes so people would have to walk at least to the front door of the business to scan the QR codes,” he said. “The whole point of doing these is to get people downtown and into our stores.”

The city also added a new promotion last year – Destination Downtown. People could pick up a passport from downtown businesses, and for every $10 spent, they got a passport stamp. Once $200 was spent, they could turn the passport into the visitor’s center for a drawing, with the grand prize a $500 Main Street gift card, along with two $50 prizes.

“This ended up being about a $20,000 investment in downtown based on how many people turned in their passports,” Winburn said. “Our businesses said, ‘Yes, please do this again next year.’ They saw a lot of foot traffic from that.”

In North Augusta, Spears-Mahoney said establishing a merchants’ alliance group was the first step in developing ideas for promoting downtown. One of those ideas was for a Third Thursday event, where businesses stay open until 8 p.m. with a downtown trolley helping people visit shops and restaurants.

“Our merchants’ alliance has a very collaborative spirit and is always looking for ways to support one another. Businesses have to commit to stay open in the beginning when [the event] doesn’t have the traction that it will several months later,” Spears-Mahoney said. “So having that committed group is the key to the success of any of these things.”

North Augusta

North Augusta Forward's Third Thursday events match later shopping hours with activities and concerts. 
Photo: North Augusta Forward.

North Augusta also promotes getting people downtown through holiday events such as the popular Cocoa Cookie Crawl on the night of the city’s tree lighting, where each business offers cookies or cocoa to shoppers during the evening. In 2023, the city added Tinseltown Forest, a Christmas tree lot downtown selling wreaths and trees, with all-day music and food vendors.

“It was very successful in that, not only did people come out and enjoy the event, they also went and shopped and dined at local restaurants. That’s always our goal,” she said. “We do the event piece of it, but we want to be sure it’s ringing cash registers for our businesses and having that economic impact.”

North Augusta gets the word out by using social media, tagging all of the businesses and having them share the posts. It also uses newsletters, along with local TV, newspaper and radio interviews.

“Downtown is the backbone of our community,” she said. “These are the people that pour back into and support the community. It’s important to support them.”

In 2023, the Municipal Association of SC and Main Street South Carolina launched WeShopSC, a statewide e-commerce marketplace, to support South Carolina’s small businesses. Learn more online.