Suzanne West, of Harrison, Maine, wears a face covering to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus after shopping for holiday decorations, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Bridgton, Maine. A local "Secret Santa" program in Portland hopes to concentrate holiday shopping among local independent businesses, which have suffered during the pandemic. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland shoppers can partake in a citywide “Secret Santa” gift-swap to support vendors and artisans in Maine’s largest city, who are staring down a financial crunch.

After completing a survey of their interests, participants will receive the name and interests of a stranger to shop for. They’re encouraged to purchase from an annual gift guide of more than 60 ideas from local businesses. The guide is produced by Portland Buy Local, an organization comprising roughly 400 independent businesses launched to counter the rise of national chains in the region.

The program aims to give local businesses a much-needed boost in a retail environment gutted by the coronavirus and strained by commercial rents that have largely not decreased despite the economic strain, said Mary Alice Scott, Portland Buy Local’s executive director, who designed the program.

“In a year with so many of us feeling the effects of the pandemic and facing uncertainty going into the winter months, we thought this would be a fun way to spread cheer, while encouraging people to shop at Portland’s local businesses,” she said.

While necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the safety protocols have proven to be a challenge to small businesses. Cautious shoppers opting to buy items online rather than downtown has tilted revenues toward corporate retailers. Big box stores deemed essential in the early days of the pandemic were allowed to remain open while many smaller businesses were shut down — effectively giving corporations a “boost,” Scott said in April — though most have reopened under coronavirus safety guidelines.

As experts predict more economic pain this winter, Scott says it’s especially important that Mainers shop local this holiday season. The organization calculated that if everyone in Cumberland County shifted 10 percent of their shopping budget to locally owned businesses, it could generate an additional $127 million in local economic activity and 874 new jobs.

Portland Buy Local is accepting sign-ups for the program through Dec. 16. Participants must be 18 or older, and are encouraged to spend roughly $25 on gifts, which must be dropped off at designated locations by Jan. 15.