It started as a promotion by American Express four years ago, but now Small Business Saturday is growing in eclectic ways — from shop to shop, and town to town.
In 2010, the financial services giant coined the term Small Business Saturday, offering incentives to its credit card users who bought items from independently owned businesses. It was a way to remind consumers that there's more to holiday shopping than Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Despite its infancy as a corporate mantra, Small Business Saturday is taking hold in some towns where local people seize the opportunity to promote gift shops, clothing stores, restaurants and any other local enterprise. The offers depend largely on the initiative and creativity of the individuals who pull it all together.
A food co-op in New London is hosting an organic- and gluten-free pancake breakfast. A shop in Enfield is handing out handmade gifts to the first 25 customers. There's a raffle in Glastonbury and a scavenger hunt in Torrington. American Express also suggests events: a fun run, a family day, a kick-off breakfast or a "passport" that can be used to get customers to visit various stores.
"It has really taken off," said Andrew Markowski, Connecticut director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a small-business association with offices in all 50 states, which also promotes the event with American Express.
Last year, more than 1,450 individuals contacted American Express to rally the businesses in their towns. American Express donates signs and canvas tote bags to businesses that offer promotions and discounts on Saturday. American Express cardholders will get a $10 credit on their bill for each purchase of $10 or more at a participating small business. Cardholders can get the credit up to three times, but each purchase has to be at a different store.
The event has a lot buzz on social media.
Last year, there was a 65 percent increase from 2012 among Twitter users tweeting the phrase #ShopSmall, according to the Connecticut Small Business Development Center, which provides free advising services to prospective and existing business owners.
More than 3.35 million Facebook users have "liked" the Small Business Saturday Facebook page.
"Small Business Saturday is part of the mainstream retail lexicon," Markowski said. "Everyone knew what Black Friday was. Cyber Monday has been around for a long time. And I think now, finally, we have Small Business Saturday that gets spoken about in the same conversation with those other retail holidays."
In Glastonbury, the first Small Business Saturday involves a raffle. For every $10 in purchases made at participating businesses, a customer will get a raffle ticket. So, $40 at one store means the shopper gets four raffle tickets. More than two dozen businesses are participating. Customers deposit their raffle tickets at Pazzo's Italian Café next to the prizes they'd like to win. The raffle prizes are goods and services provided by local shops. Customers don't have to be present for the drawing — entrants leave their phone number on the ticket and get a call if they win.
"We're going to do 10 percent off on a purchase of $50 or more," said Jan Horahan, who owns a women's clothing and handbag consignment store, Jan's on Main, in Glastonbury.
"We have some pretty unique things," Horahan said. "Our specialty, we sell out of them every year, are fleece-lined leggings, for example."
Horahan said that she and her husband, who owns a tree-care company, like to shop locally and have found that many fellow Glastonbury residents support them. Her consignment business has been open for four years.
In Enfield, Barbra O'Boyle, who owns the artists' co-op Teaberry Treasures, organized about eight shops in the Hazardville section of town to offer discounts for Small Business Saturday for the third year in a row. The first Small Business Saturday two years ago resulted in lines out the front and back doors at Teaberry Treasures. This year, O'Boyle said, people have been at her store shopping for the holidays since mid-September.
"When you buy from a small shop like us, you're not helping a CEO get his next luxury item," O'Boyle said. "You're actually helping a parent to pay for college. That's me."
The movement is expanding this year to include Small Business Saturday Night, which is intended to get people to eat at a local restaurant, said Emily Carter, state director of the Connecticut Small Business Development Center.
In terms of critical mass, Markowski said he believes that there's lots of room for this promotion to grow.
"We've seen growth over the last five years and I would anticipate that we're going to continue to see growth over the next five years just as Black Friday seems to continue to grow," he said. "This is going to be completely driven by public demand, consumer demand. It seems that the sky is the limit in terms of people wanting to support and patronize small businesses."
Here is a brief survey of other town-based Small Business Saturday events in Connecticut:
Milford: The Greater New Milford Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a Festival of Lights and a tree-lighting ceremony at 5:30 p.m. on the Village Green, along with a parade of lights, visits with Santa and discounts and promotions by local shops.
Branford: A holiday parade features a Christmas tree lighting, and shoppers will get discounts all day. There's an open house at Branford Town Center.
New Haven: City stores are offering discounts. For information, visit http://infonewhaven.com/shopsmall.
Simsbury: Simsbury Celebrates is a free community holiday event from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. that includes street entertainment and fireworks. It predates Small Business Saturday and was originally called Opening Night to showcase the arts. In its current form, restaurants are selling food amid the musicians and other performers.
Torrington: The Torrington Downtown Partners is promoting discounts at more than 30 shops for Small Business Saturday, but it's also promoting a homegrown scavenger hunt on Dec. 13 to broaden the "Shop Small" movement to another weekend. Ginger Balch owns In Sheep's Clothing Yarn Shop & Fiber Arts Studio, where she sells knitting supplies and yarn as well as advice for holiday knitting projects, such as cowls. Balch is promoting a new rewards program on Small Business Saturday. Shoppers get $5 off a $25 purchase during their second visit to the shop, and shoppers accumulate points for discounts throughout the year. For information, visit http://www.torringtondowntownpartners.com.
New London: In the New London historic waterfront, this is the second year that Small Business Saturday is combined with the city's Celebration of Lights and Song, said Annah Perch, director of New London Main Street. Discounts and sales are offered by 32 businesses. Santa Claus will be at the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse, 19 Atlantic St. Christmas caroling and the lighting of the Christmas tree is scheduled for between 3 and 5:30 p.m., Perch said. Fiddleheads Natural Foods Cooperative in New London is having a pancake breakfast with organic and gluten-free pancakes. Northern Light Gems jewelry store is giving 60 percent off for the first 60 minutes a shopper is in the store — and the shoppers must arrive between 11 a.m. and noon to get the deal. "There's a new gallery in town called Marquee Gallery," Perch said, adding, "They're offering a 10 percent off items in their gallery, but they're also giving away apple cider and hot chocolate and they're doing a Christmas card-making event for kids." For information, visit http://www.newlondonmainstreet.org.