Big things are happening as Small Business Saturday turns 10

Photo: American Express
Nov 27, 2019

American Express, for the first time, is playing up future technology to support Small Business Saturday, but the overall “shop small” message is resonating more and more as the event reaches its tenth year.

An American Express survey found 77 percent of Americans considered Small Business Saturday a national tradition. The same 77 percent were interested in spending money to support Small Business Saturday this year, up from 44 percent in 2010. 

Supporting those sentiments is the finding that 84 percent agree that closing of small, independently owned businesses and increase in empty storefronts negatively affects their local communities.

The primary talking point of the program is the finding that an average of 67 cents of every dollar spent at a small business in the U.S. ends up staying in that local community.

At a launch event last week at its first-ever pop-up that displayed futuristic technologies, Lin-Manuel Miranda, best known as the composer and star of the hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” spoke about how the community messages in commercials featuring Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld and Martin Scorsese convinced him to become an American Express ambassador. He grew up, met his wife and is raising a family in the Washington Heights section of New York City.

Mr. Miranda also noted he is becoming a small business owner himself with his purchase with three partners of Manhattan’s century-old Drama Book Shop. He read manuscripts on the book shop’s floor as a teenager, eventually met contacts that launched his career and wanted to preserve that artists’ community.

Asked about advice for small business owners, Mr. Miranda admitted he is still learning about retail, but said he decided to acquire Drama Book Shop because the place was “about so much more than what was on sale.” He added, “An algorithm may tell you what book you might like, but you’re not going to get that personal connection that someone will give you in a bookstore … It’s about interacting with other people.” He encouraged small business owners to “create something that is richer than the sum of its parts.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is the “shop small” message increasingly resonating with consumers or something most “preach but don’t practice”? Are there more steps Small Business Saturday or retailers themselves should take to better promote the community benefits of shopping local?

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19 Comments on "Big things are happening as Small Business Saturday turns 10"

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Mark Ryski

I think consumers are sympathetic to small shop operators but if you follow the spending, it’s more of a “preach but don’t practice” stance. The retail community has done a reasonably good job in promoting Small Business Saturday, but ultimately this comes down to changing consumer behavior, and the allure of Amazon, the low pricing of Walmart and the selection of Target make competing with the giants as challenging as ever. Industry events like Small Business Saturday help but, ultimately, small shop retailers need to focus on what they do best – delivering a great experience for the shopper that entered their store.

Bob Phibbs

For Small Business Saturday retailers, I’ve just released 14 Small Business Saturday Marketing Ideas For Retailers to help you. It is a fine line of promoting shopping local because we need you versus shopping local because we deliver a better experience. Small Business Saturday allows retailers to tell a positive and hopeful message rather than using it as either a pity party or day to slash margins. The general public is demanding that smaller shops up their customer service game too, and that helps everyone.

Michael La Kier

Too often brands tire of a campaign before it resonates; this is not the case with “Shop Small” and Small Business Saturday. Importantly, the consistency for the Shop Small campaign is reinforced annually but always refreshed. The campaign resonates, but it would be virtually impossible to only shop small.

Dave Wendland

This is the reality: An average of 67 cents of every dollar spent at a small business in the U.S. ends up staying in that local community. Unfortunately the message is not always heard by consumers.

My advice for small businesses is to stop living in the shadows of the big box and focus on creating an identity that draws shoppers into your storefront (while aggressively and intentionally extending your reach beyond your street corner). Small Business Saturday is a single arrow in what should be a very large quiver of innovative, imaginative, and compelling retail tools.

Rich Kizer

I think the “shop small” message has gained much traction with consumers. Consumers have pride in “their own” local markets. During the past few years, small retailers have developed the promotional savvy to make the event more than just a sign in the window. Today retailers are updating their promotional playbooks and really competing with everyone by creating compelling promotions for their stores. Bravo!

Dick Seesel

There is a sizable group of shoppers who would like to support local, independent retailers in addition to the national big-box chains (and online retailers) that we all buy from. The annual “Shop Small” campaign has motivated these consumers — and it’s not just about the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I believe American Express supports this campaign year after year because it’s working, and it resonates with plenty of consumers.

Georganne Bender

Good things don’t always happen overnight. Kudos to American Express and indie businesses for never giving up on something so important. Shop Local, Shop Small, Shop Indie is our mantra. Rich and I work all year long to help indies get their share of consumer dollars.

Communities all over the U.S. have stepped up to support local businesses on Small Business Saturday and beyond, as have consumers. Sure, they will be out grabbing the big deals at big boxes this weekend, but they will also visit their local favorites.

This year our adopted town of St. Charles, Illinois will hold its annual Holiday Homecoming Weekend that starts with the lighting of the Christmas tree, culminates with an amazing electric light parade, and kicks off our Shop Local, Eat Local campaign. As the article points out, community is important to us all.

Shep Hyken

This is a great promotion to support small and local businesses. I’ll bet most people that are aware of Small Business Saturday had never heard of it 10 years ago – and probably only heard about it two or three years ago. It takes time to get a “holiday” like this to catch on. I applaud American Express for getting behind it with some promotional dollars. But Amex can’t do it alone. With small businesses supporting and rallying around the weekend, and maybe another major sponsor or two, this “holiday” will continue to gain momentum and grow each year.

Lisa Goller

The “shop small” message resonates most among consumers who slow down to select artisan items with care. That said, the majority of us now habitually prioritize the speed, convenience and product availability of major retailers.

Independent shops and unique boutiques are the soul of a neighborhood. Since the mid-‘90s I’ve yearned for the resuscitation of authentic small shops, like Keltic Touch and The Book Nook in Toronto’s Kingsway area. Their artistic spirit has been replaced by at least one Starbucks.

To encourage consumers to shop local, Small Business Saturday and retailers can:

  • Find synergies: Collaborate with local artist communities for marketing opportunities and special deals. Attend artisan fairs, farmers markets, art shows and Christmas fairs to spark interest and word of mouth.
  • Emphasize quality and uniqueness: Express the craftsmanship, time and care that go into one-of-a-kind products by contrasting niche items with mass-produced merchandise, as consumers value variety and diversity.
  • Celebrate people: Tell brand stories that celebrate local community members. Also, deliver personalized customer service to make the stores friendly social hubs to encourage connection.
Ken Morris

People are ready for a change and not just politically. For the last 30-plus years family owned businesses have been gobbled up by large national and multi-national corporations. For the consumer this has resulted in products that are bland and poorly made. The profit margin these companies hope to achieve is created by cutting back on the quality of construction.

A return to small local companies offers the consumer a chance to not only express their individual style but also shares the profit from the local business back to the community.

I am a board member of Boston Main Streets Foundation where we are working to offer neighborhood businesses in Boston the same technology used by the big retailers. The goal is to level the playing field and allow some of the profit to remain local. We plan to shift these businesses from cash-only to virtual payment options and capture the new, younger non-cash customer.

Ken Lonyai

I’m skeptical of the survey because once again–like magic, the survey results align with the survey sponsor’s intended outcome.

No doubt that when asked, people are all for the little guy and no doubt they don’t want to see empty stores on Main Street. Yet, Amazon and Walmart keep growing because those very same people want the convenience and pricing the big entities offer.

It’s good that Small Business Saturday continues to get better recognition and grow, but one day or even 10 days of focus is insufficient to keep mom and pop stores afloat. Until shoppers walk-the-walk in vast numbers all year long, small businesses are going to continue to struggle, unless they completely decommodify and seriously up their customer experience.

Ken Wyker

The event is designed to remind shoppers of the value of local businesses in their community. It should also serve as a reminder to local retailers that their best weapon against the huge national and digital chains is the emotional connection that they have (or can create) with their customers. Algorithms and free shipping don’t create an emotional connection.

Shikha Jain

So great to support small businesses and the community. Independent retailers typically have two advantages. 1) Products that are unique or not easily available in big box formats. Typically these are specialty, handcrafted or customized. And 2) Whole large retailers will likely win on “best price,” small businesses will win by creating a more personalized and curated shopping experience. Sales reps typically go above and beyond especially for gifting occasions. Reps help uncertain shoppers by asking questions about the person for whom they are buying, the budget they have and so on to increase purchase conversions.

A small piece of advice for independent retailers is to leverage consumer psychology for promotions. Even though the mix is shifting towards small businesses vs. a decade ago, everyone is still competing for the same wallet during the holidays. Using principles of scarcity and urgency when merchandising promotions with messages like “while supplies last,” “offer expiring soon” can be powerful emotional purchase triggers.

Ananda Chakravarty

Unfortunately, small business Saturday rarely holds a focus on small business as all the large retailers are raking in the cash on this Saturday. Each of the Saturdays leading up to Xmas is a high selling day for traditional retail and the small business component of that remains just that-small. Recently put out a blog on the trending for some of these holidays here if you care to look.

There is a local flavor that is appealing, but it’s still retailing as usual — typical marketing, etc. Perhaps some of the tech can help small business scale up. With few resources, it’s a challenge at that level to compete with the ads, discounts, loss leaders, and marketing that the larger retailers push during this season.

Ralph Jacobson

The more I see bigger retailers partnering with local shops (and it doesn’t happen in a lot of places, yet) the more I see the sustainability of small stores and big stores in the same markets. I have seen big stores feature the local retailers with in-store promotions, and that drives a ton of local goodwill.

Cate Trotter

People like the “shop small” message. They like independent and small businesses, but I think it’s clear to everyone that for a large proportion of shoppers things like price and convenience often win out when it comes to where they actually spend their money on a regular basis. Who hasn’t expressed sadness about a small local business closing down but also remarked that it’s been “ages” since they last went there?

Customers want these spaces to be around for the odd occasion they choose them, but of course no business can operate like that. Initiatives like Small Business Saturday are certainly to be commended for keeping local business awareness up and hopefully convincing customers to shift more of their regular spending that way. The backlash from certain shoppers over the practices of the likes of Amazon and other big names is undoubtedly also helping drive a shift in habits.

Kathleen Fischer

The “shop small” message is definitely growing as consumers become more aware of the impact buying at local stores has on their communities. One of the best ways to promote Small Business Saturday is to have local businesses work together on a promotion or event to encourage shopping at the small local businesses. For example, in my community there is a trolley to easily transport shoppers from section to section of local businesses, making it simple and fun to shop multiple areas of small businesses.

Jeff Sward

“Something that is richer than the sum of the parts.” Sounds like an “experience” to me. Rumor has it that’s what customers are longing for.

Jeffrey McNulty

Outstanding job by American Express, continuing to forge collaborative partnerships with small business owners. It is refreshing to see.

"Kudos to American Express and indie businesses for never giving up on something so important. "

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