Rethinking the Benefits of Small-Business Saturday

What started as an incentive for consumers to 'shop small' has turned into a clarion call for local shops to unite and form stronger communities.
By Bartie Scott
Reporter, Inc.@bartielouscott

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's drive 50 percent of annual sales at BJ Dowlen's company Bodyworks Enterprises, whose flagship product is a self-massage tool called BodyworksBall. Rather than kicking off her sales season on Black Friday, the traditional holiday opener, she views the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day as the official start date. The day--dubbed Small-Business Saturday--is crucial for her company in large part thanks to pooling resources with other local shops.

"All of us have our own brick and mortar [shop], and that's great, but the cross-promotion is helping us all to increase visibility and sales," says Dowlen.

That's been the biggest benefit of the holiday American Express created in 2010 to offer financial incentives to consumers who shop at local businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Last year, to capture the kind of "digital foot traffic" that drives customers from one local business to the next, Dowlen created a video featuring products and services from 11 other businesses in her town of Brick, New Jersey. This year, she's working on a similar collaborative campaign, for which she created a graphic and hashtag for the community to use in cross-promotional efforts.

In 2011, Congress officially recognized the holiday, which falls on November 26 this year. But over the years, American Express scaled back its financial incentives--from a $25 statement credit for those who shop locally on Small-Business Saturday, down to a $10 credit. In 2015, it offered no reward, and this year, AmEx customers will get points in lieu of cash incentives.

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Without AmEx's financial incentives driving customers, some businesses say they can't afford to spend advertising dollars on a single day's promotion. That's why it often falls to local chambers of commerce or business district associations to organize community promotions. The chamber in Patchogue, New York, for example, is offering the first 300 patrons at local businesses between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. a "Shop Small" swag bag full of deals from Patchogue businesses. Banter & Bliss Candle Co. in San Pedro, California, gets a boost as part of an artisans' marketplace called Crafted, which operates out of the Port of Los Angeles, says founder Sheena Tahilramani. There it offers candle-making workshops for customers during the weekend following Thanksgiving.

Late November isn't normally a busy time for Dallas-based Sunnyland Patio Furniture, so VP of operations Brad Schweig says the business has to get creative to see any kind of boost on Small-Business Saturday. In addition to offering discounts, this year the family-run business is trying out a new way of giving back to the community--offering 10 percent of every sale to any nonprofit organization of the customer's choosing.

Even though the consumer financial incentives from AmEx have weakened, business owners like Cordell Miles can still take advantage of free marketing materials on the credit card company's website. Through the local chamber of commerce, his Downers Grove, Illinois, independent record store, Music Masters Worldwide, is participating in a collaborative shopping effort, in which he is kicking off a showcase of some of the most hard-to-find items in his store.

Miles is hoping the event will inspire storytelling among customers who take home special items--after they've left his shop and moved on to other stores or family gatherings. After all, that emotional connection and sense of community is what fosters loyalty to local businesses--and keeps customers coming back for more.

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