On Main Street, high hopes for this year’s Small Business Saturday


On Small Business Saturday last year, President Obama and his daughters made a surprise visit to One More Page Books in Arlington, triggering a big sales bump for the store during the holiday season. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
November 18, 2013

Eileen McGervey expects her bookstore to attract plenty of customers on the final Saturday of November, increasingly known as Small Business Saturday — but she concedes it won’t likely garner quite the attention it attracted on that day last year.

After all, President Obama isn’t likely to visit the same store on consecutive Small Business Saturdays.

“I wish I could say we were expecting a big guest like that again,” McGervey, the owner of One More Page Books in Arlington, said in an interview, recalling the surprise visit from the president last November that prompted a flood of publicity and helped drive holiday sales at her store up 45 percent over the previous year.

While McGervey is expecting fewer news cameras this time around, her store is still planning for another big Small Business Saturday. She is bringing in a handful of local authors to serve as personal shopping aides that day, and she is offering a number of raffles and discounts, hoping to attract customers from neighboring communities.

In addition, for the first time, she recently started a postcard marketing campaign inviting locals to visit the store that weekend.

“Having the authors there this year should really give us a boost, because they have a lot of local fans who they’re telling where they are going to be,” McGervey said.

American Express began the Small Business Saturday campaign in 2010, encouraging consumers to “shop small” on the day after Black Friday. In the three years since, the White House, Small Business Administration and hundreds of corporations and community groups have joined the effort, hoping to give local, brick-and-mortar merchants a larger share of sales during the busiest shopping weekend of the year.

American Express estimated consumers spent about $5.5 billion at local stores last year on Small Business Saturday, about one-10th of the $59.1 billion the National Retail Federation says shoppers spent over the course of the weekend.

Holiday season uncertainty

This year, the day presents a particularly important opportunity for small retailers, many of whom are anticipating a tough holiday shopping season.

The National Federation of Independent Business reported last week that its small business optimism index has fallen to its lowest level since March. An earlier survey by small business directory Manta showed that only 13 percent of owners believe holiday sales will increase this year over 2012, compared to 43 percent who expect a decline.

NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg and Manta Communications Director Kristy Campbell both blamed the “bah humbug” mood on Main Street partly on last month’s government shutdown.

“Though the government has reopened, it’s created economic uncertainty across the nation and has affected consumer confidence impacting retailers of all sizes,” Kristy Campbell, Manta’s director of marketing and communications, wrote in an e-mail.

Jeanne Rossomme, a mentor for the D.C. chapter of SCORE, a small business mentorship organization, noted that the shutdown may take an especially big bite out of spending around the nation’s capital, where many individuals lost some work and income while the government was closed.

“I think that added some extra caution for business in the area,” Rossomme said.

Coupled with an unusually short holiday shopping season this year (there are less than four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and yet another budget battle awaiting policymakers in January, Dunkelberg warned that the outlook for small businesses is not likely to improve any time soon.

Nevertheless, some shopkeepers remain optimistic about the holidays.

Small business ‘everyday’

Deborah Culberston, who opened Heaven Sent Cupcakery six months ago inside Bowie Town Center in Maryland, says she is working with the mall management team to try to promote its many independently owned stores leading up to Small Business Saturday. She is planning to run a donation drive that day for a local pantry and she is mulling whether to offer some discounts to customers.

“Honestly, before I heard about it on television, I didn’t know the day existed,” Culberston said. “I’m hoping it brings some extra people.”

Other local business owners are plenty familiar.

“I bet my numbers last year were double a normal day,” said Leah Daniels, who owns Hill’s Kitchen, a gourmet kitchenware shop near Capitol Hill. “People were going crazy in the store, and it was fun to see everyone get excited about shopping at local businesses.”

Daniels, who opened her store in the same neighborhood she grew up in, is anticipating another large turnout this year. She is using Twitter and an e-mail newsletter to let her customers know about one-day-only deals the store will be offering on certain knife sets and sauce pans.

Still, she doesn’t want customers to put too much emphasis on just one day.

“I think the important thing is to train people to think ‘small business everyday’ rather than just Small Business Saturday,” Daniels said. “It’s a fun time to put out the balloons and everything, but we are here everyday, and we have to let them know that small businesses like ours have something special to offer.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.
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