When I started Design*Sponge back in 2004, I had no idea that city guides would become such a big part of what we published. DS City Guides (we have over 300 in our archives!) came about naturally as people asked for design recommendations. As we grew, these guides became another way for us to celebrate independent design and the businesses that we were featuring in the form of home tours or studio visits. But I had no idea how much they would teach me about the business of design and what it means to be a conscientious traveler. So I wanted to share some of what we’ve learned from these guides and how we hope you’ll consider using them while they’re still online (for at least the next 6 months).
- It’s hard out there for brick-and-mortar shops: One of the toughest parts of maintaining these city guides was keeping up with how quickly indie businesses opened and, sadly, closed. It’s no secret that the web has affected in-person sales, and in some cases stores we’d posted about in guides were closing (or going online only) less than a week after we wrote about them. Every time we got an email about a link being outdated or a shop closing, it was a sad reminder that it’s tough to maintain a brick-and-mortar shop today — especially if you’re independent. So the biggest lesson I learned from these guides was: if you’re able, try to shop in person when you can. Not only does it support local business and keep Main Streets alive, it keeps you connected to your community. You get to meet the people who own businesses, hear their stories, and hopefully make new friends.
- New business is just as important as older business: One of the mistakes I made early on with guides was not paying attention to how important it was to spread the love across all businesses in a town. I focused too closely on new “hip” shops, and sadly wasn’t realizing how important it was to celebrate and encourage visitors to check out existing businesses that had been around for a long time. We worked on making guides more inclusive and supportive of all communities and retail as they went on, but that mistake taught me how important it was not to forget the places that have been there, supporting and serving a community, for a long time. So if you’re traveling to a new town, try to spread the love and visit more established businesses as much as new ones. I’ve kept this in mind for the past few years and it’s introduced me to new neighborhoods and communities and points of views in ways I wouldn’t have gotten if I only went to the places that had big Instagram followings. Those are fun, too, but a mix of all different types of places will give you a fuller picture of a city.
- No one store is for everyone: Almost every city guide had at least a small dose of controversy. Whether it was people calling out (or defending) a store or restaurant owner for being too this or too that, or people claiming one place’s offerings were more “authentic” than another, we always saw a little bit of hometown scuffling in the comment sections. And what that taught me is: basically no store will make every visitor happy. So while I tended to love a lot of the places that people suggested we visit, I didn’t love them all. But that didn’t mean that there was a single thing wrong with that spot — it just wasn’t my style or wasn’t for me. I love the intense hometown pride that leads to heated conversation in comment sections (because it usually comes from a place of love and pride), but I hope DS travelers will keep in mind that what makes one visitor feel like a spot is “the best” may not be true for you, or someone else. Please keep in mind that these shops are someone’s pride and joy, and if you don’t like them (barring egregious or poor treatment from the staff), try to remember that they’re people like all of us, just trying to do their best to provide a service for their community.
- Slick branding does not equal great service: One of the things I didn’t expect to when we launched these guides was how we would become a go-between for readers and people featured in guides — particularly if someone didn’t enjoy a spot on our list. And the most common complaint? It usually boiled down to someone explaining that the “coolest” spots on a list (or the places getting the most buzz and social media attention) often didn’t follow through on quality customer service. I lost count of how many times I heard from people who said, “I couldn’t wait to go here after seeing it on Instagram… but they were so rude and didn’t even acknowledge us when we walked in the store.” And that’s not to say I didn’t hear the same about more established businesses now and then, but it became clear to me that we needed to pay more attention to the way a store treated its customers/clients than the way they branded themselves. So ultimately I hope travelers using our guides will consider looking beyond branding sometimes. I’ve found some of the best spots have older signage (or little signage at all) or branding that might come across as “dated” to fans of modern design/social media trends. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t have amazing things to offer, kind owners/employees, and a wonderful experience to offer. In short, give them all a shot and see where you feel most comfortable.
- Store Owners Are Doing Their Best: I’ve read hundreds of complaint emails and comments in guides over the years (usually seeking an apology from me about their experience at a spot), and one of the things it made me feel was empathy — for the owners of brick-and-mortar shops. These days people have SO many shopping options and we’ve come to expect (myself included) the same things of online shops and those offline. But indie stores can’t afford to offer the types of prices and shipping offers as giant mega brands (for good reason). But that doesn’t seem to stop a lot of us from giving shop owners an unfair ear full (or writing a scathing review) about what is perceived as poor service. Sure, I know lots of places do genuinely fail to treat people kindly or offer a good service (and yes, in those cases, let them know), but in general, I’ve found most store owners want to do their best to make customers happy and do what they can to offer fair prices or good experiences for guests. So if you find a place to perhaps not live up to the hype (which isn’t always something shops/restaurants ask for or even want), or they don’t have time to pose for pictures, or if they are out of something, extending them a little empathy is always a good idea. I’ve found sometimes a second visit (if you’re local) is the best way to really gauge if some place is off their game. We all have bad days, and giving businesses grace to have those (and hopefully move past them) is always kind.
- You Don’t Have to Buy to Support: My last lesson (that I learned) and closing hope to share is about how to support brick-and-mortar shops and indie businesses when you’re on the road. So often I’ve heard from people saying, “I love this shop, but couldn’t afford anything in there.” It’s not always a complaint, but rather a lament that they love a spot and want to support them, but it’s not in their budget. And the great news is, today there are so many ways to support a business you love (or a business owner you believe in), even if you can’t or don’t shop there. You can share some love on social media, suggest them to friends, register there for special occasions, leave a nice review about their service or staff or offerings, or just write them a nice note. I can’t always afford to buy things in shops I love and appreciate, but I do try to take pictures, share them on social, or recommend them when I think they might be in someone else’s budget range. It’s a small way to support retail in your area (or an area you visit) without having to dip into your purse. Design*Sponge travelers and city guide users have always been kind, curious, and enthusiastic supporters of the creative community, so I am excited to think about all the places you’ll travel years after we’re gone. xo, Grace
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