Striving For Mass Appeal, Small Business Saturday Touts Community


If the wretched excess of Black Friday has any benefit beyond the ritual of communal consumption, it is as a launching pad for days that are Not Black Friday.

Opponents celebrate Buy Nothing Friday, online shoppers have Cyber Monday and environmentalists have Green Tuesday, all designed to contrast with the mayhem of Black Friday. Wal-Mart, Sears and Target are tragically turning Thanksgiving into Bargain Thursday.

The most intriguing of all the me-too shopping days is Small Business Saturday, now in its third year as a marketing vehicle a day after Black Friday. It's catching on, perhaps steadily, but it's still far short of a mass experience.

Happy Small Business Saturday, an observance that, unlike its giant Friday forebear, is generally for the good of community.

At Gledhill Nursery in West Hartford, co-owner Karen Powell never heard of the day until this year. She jumped in by handing out a 10 percent discount coupon for Saturday, stapled to the "Shop Small" flyer put out by American Express, which launched Small Business Saturday in 2010.

Black Friday is not a busy day at Gledhill, Powell said, but Small Business Saturday comes on the right day.

"The timing of it is really good because everybody talks about Black Friday, and Black Friday is really such a mall-oriented day," said Powell, whose nursery is near no other stores. "To include it in Black Friday weekend I think is perfect."

Small Business Saturday is intriguing for a few reasons. First, it was spawned by a giant Wall Street firm to celebrate Main Street America. To Amex's credit, the company backs it up with a $25 credit for its cardholders who shop small, and is trying to fuel it as a grass roots movement. No rules, just do it.

Second, Small Business Saturday appeals to anti-mass-consumers such as Hartford artist Amy LaBossiere, who started the local Buy Nothing Day page on Facebook. On Friday, LaBossiere reminded Facebook fans not to buy anything, and added, "This is balanced quite nicely with Small Business Saturday...thanks for joining in this important movement!"

And yet, let's be clear, this day is every bit about prodding you to buy stuff.

And how's this for a conundrum: We have no ready way to measure how many people participate in Small Business Saturday, unless we count everyone who shops in an independent store two days after Thanksgiving, and every independent retailer who's open.

A walk down almost any Main Street would show few visible signs of Small Business Saturday, though Amex is trying to change that, with door mats and signs mailed to retailers — which, again to Amex's credit, do not promote American Express. In Old Saybrook, the gift shop Swag is among those with the doormat and signs.

"I see a substantial increase in my Amex business on that Saturday," said Michael Hoinsky, the owner of Swag. He said he expects the day to grow, especially after Amex's broader efforts this year, but he said, "Right now it's still tied a little too closely to Amex."

Hoinsky said about 25 percent or 30 percent of customers have heard of it, a number he predicted will rise sharply in two or three years. "I don't think we're anywhere near critical mass yet," he said.

Last year, Amex and the National Federation of Independent Business, in a survey, touted the 103 million people who participated in Small Business Saturday. That was a bit deceptive, and to their credit, they revised their methodology in this year's survey. Now, they ask respondents whether they are aware of Small Business Saturday, then they ask those that are aware, whether they will participate.

The results: 35 percent of adults 18 or over have heard of it, of which 67 percent will shop at an independent retailer on Saturday. That's still tens of millions of shoppers, but includes my regular Saturday visit to the local hardware store.

"We don't care if you use our card or use cash as long as you shop at a small business," said American Express spokesman Scott Krugman. "Small businesses have taken ownership of it."

Among merchants, 34 percent were aware of the day, and 46 percent of those planned to promote it in some way, the 2012 survey showed.

For some, it's a very passive promotion, with no signs or special discounts. "We appreciate the recognition," said Bob Dorin, longtime owner of Manchester Hardware, which offers a vast array of home goods.

Other merchants say it hasn't worked for them. In Enfield, Jen Bujak, who owns Mark's Motorsports with her husband, Mark, said they put a lot of effort into Small Business Saturday last year, for their motorcycles, ATV's, mopeds and scooters. "And nothing came of it."

"Right now with the economy the way it is, people are looking for every penny they can save," she said, adding that's not the main goal of a small business, which offers quality and service. "It's cutthroat right now."

Small Business Saturday will never be able to compete with its uglier ancestor, for deals. Merchants know that, and the key for them is to find a way to turn the day into a universal phenomenon, apart from American Express. It's unclear whether the appeal of a friendlier way of shopping will do the trick.

At Gledhill Nursery in West Hartford, it looks and smells like Christmas but Maggie, Powell's sprightly, 17-year-old cat, makes clear this is no national chain. Customer Lois Kashing, who came in for ant killer and bought a decorative fir swag, was already aware of Small Business Saturday when Powell handed her a flyer.

To Kashing, it's a matter of supporting the entire community. "I'm 87 and I still care," she said.

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