Local mom-and-pop stores are trying to make a strong sales pitch to holiday shoppers, while getting squeezed by big box Goliaths on one side and cut-throat online discounters on the other.
Virtually all of the hoopla about Black Friday weekend focused on which retail giant has the best door buster deals and discounts. Amid the flurry of eye-popping markdowns, crazy marketing schemes, and general cut-throat competitiveness, it’s easy to overlook the little guys struggling to compete with Walmart, Best Buy, Target, Amazon, and all the other big retail players making noise in the marketplace. Indeed, as the results of a recent Bank of America survey show, the vast majority of small business owners feel left out of Black Friday: 74% said the day “has little to no impact on their bottom line, compared to 69% last year.”
To help small businesses avoid being thought of as mere afterthoughts during the epic shopping weekend, American Express created the day-after-Black-Friday tradition known as Small Business Saturday a few years back. It’s a fairly self-explanatory idea, in which consumers are encouraged—through deals, promotions, and special events—to shop at downtown mom-and-pop stores rather than hit the same old national retailers clogging malls and highway stops around the country.
Yet as Businessweek noted recently, compared with the frenzy of attention showered on huge national retailers on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, the trickle of special offers from small, independent shops is sorta “like bringing a (handmade) knife to a gunfight.”
Local shop owners say they having a particularly hard time competing with their oversized retail counterparts during the holiday season because online discounters push prices lower and lower, and national chains keep expanding store hours further and further into Thanksgiving. That doesn’t mean that small businesses and downtown shopping districts in general are willing to simply concede holiday sales to the mall. Rather than taking one careful, strategic strike against a larger opponent like David does in his Biblical fight against Goliath, small businesses are banding together in communities around the U.S., with the hope that there is strength in numbers.
Here are a few of the ways that these Davids are collectively battling for attention and shopper dollars during the holidays:
Local Shopping Guides
Local-focused magazines in cities like Memphis and Chicago make a tradition out of publishing shopping guides highlighting gifts that are made and sold in their respective metro areas. Some local business associations also publish a special version of The Scout Guide, a concept born in Charlottesville, Va., in 2010 focused on the best independent and locally owned small businesses, which has expanded to dozens of U.S. cities. “Small businesses need to speak louder to be heard over the Internet and the recession,” one business owner in the Minneapolis area said to the StarTribune recently, explaining why she supported a Scout Guide for the region. “With limited promotional budgets, we have to do more to announce ourselves than take out an ad spot in the back of a magazine.”
Still other cities, notably Detroit, are issuing “passports,” which shoppers can get stamped at participating local stores in order to receive discounts and the occasional freebie.
To woo shoppers downtown—where so many local-owned restaurants and small businesses still set up shop—Philadelphia waives the usual requirement to feed parking meters on Saturdays, now and throughout the month of December.
Buy-local groups created Plaid Friday in 2010 in Oakland, Calif., as a relaxed, small-and-independent shopping alternative to Black Friday, dominated as it is by national retailers and their mass-produced doorbuster deals. Why plaid? The concept, which has since spread to Las Vegas, Fayetteville, Arkansas, Portland, Maine, and beyond, is all about “weaving the individual threads of small businesses together to create a strong fabric that celebrates the diversity and creativity of independent businesses.”
Small Business Saturday Deals
American Express launched Small Business Saturday—the day after Black (and now, Plaid) Friday—in an attempt to remind shoppers of the importance of supporting local businesses, while also reminding them that independent shops sell all manner of quirky, unique, and memorable gift items that never wind up on the shelves of the big box chains. In addition to the sales and deals available at mom-and-pop shops, AmEx gives registered cardholders up to three $10 statement credits each time they spend $10 or more at participating small businesses on Saturday. Sacramento and other cities participating in shopper passport programs around the country typically have special promotions centered on Small Business Saturday. Billings, Mont., meanwhile, has a printable game board featuring dozens of local shops: Get 10 of them checked off by visiting now through Sunday and you can enter to win gift cards valid at participating local businesses.
Parades & Special Events
Beyond the sales on Small Business Saturday, cities such as Wilmington, Del., are hosting parades to draw shoppers to downtown business districts, while the Stay Local group in New Orleans is coordinating all sorts of events to take place on Saturday, including celebrated authors serving as special volunteer booksellers.