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"Small Business Saturday" could make or break local stores across U.S.

Holiday shopping: Supporting small businesses
Supporting small businesses this holiday shopping season 06:45

The stakes are higher than ever for small businesses this holiday season, as their owners make last-ditch efforts to recoup sales lost to the coronavirus pandemic.

Every day of the year is important for a small business, but "Small Business Saturday," launched by American Express a decade ago, is particularly relevant — and even poignant — this holiday season, with record numbers of small businesses suffering financially this pandemic year. Consider:

  • More than 100,000 small businesses have already shuttered during the pandemic, with more closures potentially on the way.
  • Total small business revenue in the U.S. plunged 32% as of November 16 from January levels, according to data from the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker based out of Harvard University. 
  • 1 in 5 small-business owners said that they will have to shut down if economic conditions don't improve within six months, according to a survey from the National Federation of Independent Business, a trade group. 

Small Business Saturday, which follows Black Friday, falls this year on November 28. It can't come soon enough for many business owners and their employees.

"It's important because if people don't start patronizing us, small businesses like myself won't be able to stay open," said Michael Croes, owner of Crow's Massage, a sports massage practice in Brooklyn, New York. 

Experts are hopeful that the shopping holiday will lift sales. Fifty-one percent of consumers said they plan to support small and local retailers on Small Business Saturday, according to Adobe Analytics; 38% said they plan to shop at smaller retailers throughout the season.

For Croes, the bump may come not a moment too soon, given that he couldn't work from March through July, while the fall, usually his busy season, has been unusually idle this year.

"I usually make the bulk of my money because I work with runners during marathon season. But without any races, my income has probably dropped by two-thirds," Croes said. 

Brooklyn, New York, massage therapist Michael Croes has seen the number of patients he normally treats this time of year fall by roughly two-thirds.  Graham Macindoe

Croes secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan that helped him scrape by, but he's long since depleted the funds. 

"It covered the loss for months I wasn't working, but it didn't cover the fact there's no marathons," he said. 

Normally, this time of year, he sees 25 to 30 people per week. Now he sees just 10, and said he depends entirely on patrons who value the idea of "community" in order to stay open. 

"I think that if people want to still have communities and small businesses and feel like they know the people who own those businesses they have to go out and support them. Otherwise they won't be around because people won't be able to afford to stay open," Croes said. 

"It's how we eat"

The marketing holiday, co-sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration, aims to raise consumer awareness around less visible establishments that compete with larger and better-known businesses. 

"Every year we participate. We post about it and encourage people to think about where they're buying from because Black Friday is a big deal, but people don't naturally think to shop small," said Ashley Rouse, founder and CEO of Trade Street Jam, a one-woman vegan jam company with North Carolina roots.

"The same plates and pots you can get from CB2, there might be a local shop that makes really cool custom stuff you can get," she added. 

Ashley Rouse, CEO of Trade Street Jam, founded in North Carolina, is hoping for a bump in sales this weekend.  Alex Joachim

Rouse this year has done $360,000 in sales, and is hoping to make at least another $100,000 before the end of the year. "If we do another $100,000, it will be ridiculously amazing for us as a small business."

She also uses the occasion to draw attention to other independent businesses. "Small Business Saturday and shopping small is literally everything. It's our bread and butter. It's how we eat," she said. 

"We've had to pivot"

Denise Woodard, founder and CEO of Partake Foods, which makes vegan and gluten-free snacks, is also amped about the holiday's potential to boost sales. 

Denise Woodard, founder of Partake Foods, will make a point of supporting other local businesses in Jersey City, New Jersey, this Saturday. Courtesy of Denise Woodard

Woodard used to market her brand through in-store demonstrations and events. COVID-19 has squashed that. Her website now features a subscription service and rewards program, rolled out in time for Small Business Saturday.

"Now we've had to pivot to a completely digital strategy," she said. "We are definitely doubling down to focus on the website."

Woodard is also focused on supporting local businesses in Jersey City, New Jersey, where she lives.

"Our business is in a strong place, so we are focused on giving back and supporting others this year," she said. 

While more shoppers are making purchases online, they're more inclined to click "buy" on larger companies' websites. Adobe Analytics expects large retailers' online sales to grow 55% from a year ago, versus 8% for small retailers. 

"Vital" exposure

Maya Gorgoni, founder of African-inspired clothing and home decorating line Royal Jelly Harlem, saw a once-in-a-lifetime sales boost when Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, stepped out wearing one of her Royal Jelly Harlem masks this summer. 

But she still has to work hard to keep enthusiasts loyal to the brand. "It's vital that we stay exposed and continue to reach new people," Gorgoni said. 

As a token of appreciation for her customers, she's using scrap fabric from dresses, pants and blouses to include masks to match the outfits she sells. "I'm like, let's make the mask to match and continue to make this unfortunate situation into something fashionable and just deal with it."

"All the help we can get"

Even those retailers who don't typically promote Small Business Saturday are banking on a boost in sales this year. 

Bryan Davis, founder of Teddy Stratford, which sells zip-fit shirts for men, said his company historically hasn't relied on a Small Business Saturday sales bump. This year is different.

Bryan Davis, founder of men's shirt company Teddy Stratford, is banking on customers supporting him this Saturday. Courtesy of Bryan Davis

"It's not really a thing for us. We have never sent out an email about it. But this year we will," Davis said. "We could use all the help we can get." 

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