In this Nov. 3, 2020, file photo, Annie's Blue Ribbon General Store in Brooklyn, New York, prepares for Small Business Saturday. Credit: Diane Bondareff / American Express via AP

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Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and the holiday shopping season in general are always a critical time for retailers, including local merchants. That is especially true this year.

“The holiday shopping period is make-or-break for many stores and restaurants as they head into the slow months of January into springtime,” David Clough, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, told MaineBiz. “Without the typical influx of tourists this summer and fall, shops are relying more than ever on the patronage of Mainers for help in making it through the long winter months.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only changing how many Americans are celebrating holidays this year, but also how people are shopping for them.

Our message last year to prioritize local vendors in your holiday shopping cannot be stressed enough in the 2020 holiday season. While online and retail giants like Amazon and Walmart are doing just fine during the pandemic, many of America’s small businesses are suffering — with thousands closing their doors for good.

This is yet another reason for Maine shoppers to target their holiday spending toward local businesses when they can. Nearly half the money spent at local shops, restaurants and other businesses is recirculated locally, according to information from the American Independent Business Alliance. That’s compared with just 14 cents of every dollar spent at a big-box chain.

No matter where or when people shop in the coming weeks, they should do so as safely as possible. When shopping in person, follow public health guidelines and requirements. Don’t rush to stores in search of deals. Avoid large crowds. Wear a mask, keep your distance from other people and keep your hands clean.

In a responsible effort to reduce crowds during the pandemic, many large retailers are spreading out their Black Friday deals over longer periods of time. Many small businesses and community groups are taking a similar approach to Small Business Saturday.

In Skowhegan, for example, Small Business Saturday is now a full “Shop Small” week stretching from Nov. 28 through Dec. 5.

“Apart from responding to the Maine CDC health guidelines for employees and customers, store owners are encouraging people to think of Small Business Saturday, and shopping at small stores, broadly to encompass more than just Nov. 28,” Clough said. “Customers are welcome regardless of what day or days they visit.”

Many consumers may be more comfortable shopping online, which the CDC has pointed to as a lower risk activity than shopping in crowded stores. People should explore options from Maine-based online retailers. Sites like Maine Open Online and Black Owned Maine can help connect shoppers to Maine businesses from the comfort of their own home.

“Please consider buying from these merchants who are facing huge losses and a daunting future,” the Maine Open Online site reads. “Give them extra care and patience as it is likely one person packing and shipping your product.”

Shoppers should also remember that, as businesses have adapted during the pandemic, buying online and picking up in the store or using curbside pickup have been increasingly available options that allow you to support local businesses while limiting in-person contact.

Curtis Picard, president and CEO of the Maine Retail Association, explained to MaineBiz that there has been an increase over the years in people looking to support local retailers during the holiday shopping season.

“This year, that support is more critical than ever. We are hopeful that people understand that the holiday shopping season will be different this year, so start shopping early, wear your mask and practice kindness to the people working in the industry,” Picard said. “We want to make sure these locally owned shops are still around when the pandemic is behind us.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average may have seen a historic surge this week, but this remains a tough economic time for many Americans and many Mainers. Buying gifts at such a time may not be in the cards for some people, and there is no shame in that. If you’re able to, try to reward your local businesses this holiday season by shopping small and shopping safely.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...