With the gift-giving season upon us, many consumers are searching for alternatives to big-box retailers and Amazon. Shopping local has become a big theme this holiday season, as Canadians hope to help struggling small businesses survive the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, if you’re not familiar with shopping at local or independent stores, changing your habits may seem like a daunting task. Here are some ways to navigate your gift-giving journey this year.

Be savvy with social media

When it comes to looking for local retailers, social media is your best friend. Using hashtags on Twitter or Instagram with the words “small business” and your location could help narrow down the hunt for places near you.

Follow independent shops or local business improvement areas (BIA) for ideas. Meenia Rai, owner of Makers Mojo – an Oakville, Ont. boutique that sells local handmade lifestyle products – says she gained about 1,500 new followers on Instagram in the first weeks of the pandemic. Rai has been posting videos regularly showcasing products she carries and even uses Instagram to engage one-on-one with customers. “Basically, whoever I talk to on Instagram are in my store,” Rai said. When Rai started using Instagram for her business in 2019 she admits she wasn’t very active, but now after gaining more client traction she says it “definitely helped me pay my rent.”

Stroll through virtual markets

Virtual markets are another useful tool that groups together small businesses in a one-stop shop concept catering to consumer convenience. GoodLocal is a Winnipeg-based website that sells groceries, apparel, jewelry, and health and beauty supplies from a variety of merchants. The company created the website at the beginning of the pandemic to bring local buyers and sellers closer together.

Toronto Market Co. was originally a company that organized famers’ markets since 2014. It pivoted during COVID to offer a market experience on a digital platform, selling products from 90 vendors in the Greater Toronto Area. Some other sites similar to these include Idée Cadeau Québec and West Coast Christmas Show & Artisan Market.

Use independent seller sites

Looking for personal, handcrafted gifts for your loved ones? Sites such as Etsy and Shopify house many entrepreneurs looking to sell one-of-a-kind products to consumers. Shopify introduced the #Giftbetter Guide to help shoppers find some of the small business retailers on their platform. Not Amazon is another helpful website that provides a curated list of local businesses in the Toronto, Calgary and Halifax areas.

Ask for recommendations

Sometimes the best way to find out information is just to ask. Check in with friends, family members, colleagues or neighbours to see what small businesses they’ve been shopping at. Start group chats with your friends and family, and share suggestions on companies you may have come across.

Search for your favourite local shop online

Maybe you already have a small business you frequented before the pandemic, but are unsure if they’re open. Be proactive about your shopping and simply Google how your favourite local store has adapted to COVID changes. Many businesses shifted their operations earlier in the year to focus on e-commerce, or may now offer curbside pickup if in-store shopping isn’t available.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt many small businesses in hospitality and retail this year. Shopping local this holiday may allow you to find the perfect present for those closest to you, and also give the gift of support to members of your community.