By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 11:09 AM
For years, small businesses have lived in the shadow of the sprawling malls, the big-box stores and the category killers that draw the deal-seeking masses in the frenzied shopping days after Thanksgiving. Now they are fighting back.
This year will usher in the inaugural Small Business Saturday, staking a claim between the old standby Black Friday and its younger sibling Cyber Monday. The project is the brainchild of American Express's small-business division, where executives said the most common concern they have heard from clients is lack of demand.
"The number one issue facing small businesses is they don't have enough people walking in their door," said Rosa Sabater, senior vice president at AmEx. "That is something we can all help with."
The card issuer enlisted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch the initiative earlier this month, and other cities have joined in the effort. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino this week pledged he would shop locally on that day. Even the mayor of Kennett, Mo., population 11,260, signed a proclamation declaring Nov. 27 Small Business Saturday.
In Washington, American Express is working with the city's tourism and marketing arm, Destination DC, to promote the effort.
"They're really the backbone of the community," said Elliott L. Ferguson, head of Destination DC. "There's a certain amount of pride when you are shopping and buying in our community."
Small businesses have taken center stage this year as lawmakers struggle to jump-start the nation's sputtering economic recovery. In September, Congress passed legislation to give small businesses tax breaks and other incentives to invest in new equipment and, most important, hire more workers.
Optimism among small-business owners has grown since the law was passed, according to surveys by the National Federation of Independent Business, a trade group. But average employment growth in October was zero, albeit an improvement from the negative rate for most of the past three years. And more small businesses reported sales were falling rather than rising.
"Overall, it does not appear that sales trends are supportive of a recovery," NFIB chief economist William C. Dunkelberg said.
Small Business Saturday is part of a broader attempt to reverse the tide. AmEx is offering mom-and-pop merchants $100 of advertising on Facebook for joining the program. It has also vowed to give a $25 credit to 100,000 of its customers who sign up online and shop at a local retailer on that day.
Valerie Lucas, owner of upscale lingerie shop Coup de Foudre, said her sales have typically fallen in the days after Thanksgiving as workers near her downtown Washington store lock up their offices for the holiday. Last year, she tried offering a free $50 thong with each purchase to drum up traffic to no avail.
This year, she is betting on Small Business Saturday. Her doorbuster? Twenty percent off gift certificates, and she plans to accept orders by phone.
"I'm not sure it's going to be a success overnight, but I think there's great potential," she said of the initiative.
Local retailers are often overlooked in the rush for Black Friday deals. In a survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation, a trade group, 65 percent of shoppers said they planned to visit a discount store such as Wal-Mart during the holiday season. More than half intended to stop by a department store. The survey did not track visits to small businesses.
Dennis Bourgault, owner of Chateau-Animaux, upscale pet stores in Capitol Hill and Alexandria, said that in past years he hasn't bothered to court customers away from the big-box stores on the weekend after Thanksgiving when PetSmart is dangling 60 percent off micro-suede dog beds and half-off bearded dragons and select geckos.
"There wasn't really a point to try to compete with that," he said.
But this season he decided to participate in Small Business Saturday and is considering throwing in a few deals of his own. And he is hoping the backing of American Express and several prominent politicians will help give them a national voice and persuade at least some consumers to shop small.
"We can create all the incentives we want, but unless there's something on the outside that's helping us, it can get lost in the shuffle," he said.