Small Business Saturday isn’t even a decade old, but it continues to grow in popularity by the year.

Ann Cantrell spent a dozen years plotting to open her own shop while working at Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren and Coach. In 2007, just as the Great Recession began, she opened Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store in Brooklyn.

“I was lucky to get funding,” Cantrell, 46, says in her shop filled with gifts carefully curated to the neighborhood, from books to funky kitchen and bathroom gadgets to children’s educational games. 

A decade later, Cantrell, with two full-time employees and a few additional hired during the holidays, acts as a “neighborhood champion” for Small Business Saturday, held the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  She’s held pep rallies and drawn neighboring stores into the event.

“We really use it as an educational opportunity to talk to customers,” Cantrell, who has been involved since the event’s inception in 2010.  “It’s also part of a larger conversation about how if we don’t support these stores, they’re going to disappear.”

Sandwiched between Black Friday, with its big-box store bargains and stampedes, and Cyber Monday, dominated by companies like Amazon.com, Small Business Saturday has become less about big profits and more about building community and educating shoppers about the small merchants in their own backyards. Last year, shoppers spent an estimated $15.4 billion at independent retailers and restaurants on the day, according to a survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Business for Amex. That was a decrease from the estimated $16.2 billion in 2015. In 2012, the first year the survey was taken by the NFIB, it’s estimated that the smaller merchants rang up $5.5 billion in sales. 

Small Business Saturday, company lore has it, was the last idea mentioned in an American Express brainstorming session for a small merchant advocacy campaign. Amex set up the event in six weeks, says Amy Marino, the vice president for brand marketing, experience and partnerships. That first year, 130 groups, organizations and elected officials pledged to participate. 

“Small Business Saturday really does do something to connect with our community,” says Tom Lowenburg, 60, co-owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans. At his bookstore, authors will help run registers, give recommendations, and even sign their own books as part of the day.  “It’s not about manipulating people, or putting them in an uncomfortable situation, but creating a genuine shopping experience that comes from the kinds of relationships we already have with our customers.”

In previous years, American Express offered cardholders a statement credit if they patronized certain small businesses, but it phased out the promotion in 2015. 

Now Amex works year-round to support the day, Marino says. New partnerships are added every year. This year includes online marketplace Etsy. Amex provides swag, like bags and custom posters, as well seminars, tips and training, all which merchants say helps draw customers.  “Neighborhood champions,” like Cantrell, commit to recruiting at least 10 small businesses to participate.

In San Francisco, the official partnership with Etsy should draw more foot traffic for the annual craft show called the Indie Holiday Emporium, says Rebecca Saylor, one of the captains for the SF Etsy Street Team. This year, free coffee and tote bags for shoppers are part of the event.

“We’ve always done the show on Small Business Saturday,” says Saylor, 43, who sells custom pillows through her business, OddleBaDoodle, on Etsy. “I was excited they were interested.”

In Henderson, Nevada, about 30 minutes outside Las Vegas, Mikel Conrad of Mikel’s Photography & Design saw “neighborhood champion” as a natural extension of his role as president of the Water Street Business Association and a way to restore a “small town feel” he remembers from his youth. This year, the day includes filling backpacks for Serving Our Kids, an organization that feeds homeless and at-risk children.

“For me, if businesses in the area, and the street, is prosperous and busy, people are going to walk up and down and see my business,” says Conrad, 55. “We grow together or we fail together, that’s how I feel.”

Jan McWhirter, 82, says the event makes a difference at her Tempting Treasures sweet shop, the Water Street business she runs with help from her daughter.

 

“It encourages people because they want to support us,” says McWhirter, who opened in 1984. “I get a lot of customers who tell me ‘we hope that you’ll always be here because it’s stuff we can’t get anywhere else.’”

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