Small Business Saturday

American Express gives aboost to local merchants.

Leonardo the alpaca is going to shop local this holiday season. — Courtesy Island Alpaca

Malls and big box stores have been chipping away at small retail businesses for years, and with every local merchant that shutters its doors, the fabric of our community is that much more diminished.

The idea for Small Business Saturday was introduced by American Express in 2010. Given the enormous marketing push behind Black Friday, Amex felt that they wanted to, according to their website, “encourage consumers to contribute to the vitality of their neighborhoods by shopping at local merchants in time for the holidays.”

Small Business Saturday is held on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, the day after Black Friday. According to Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, “The promotion has been on the Island for four years that I know of, and the chamber has been the Neighborhood Champion for three years.”

The Neighborhood Champion partners with Amex and reaches out to local merchants to encourage them to participate. The chamber sends out email blasts to their mailing lists, promoting the event to customers, and helps distribute “the “swag” to local merchants — by swag, Ms. Gardella refers to the tote bags, signs, and posters provided by Amex to promote the event in local stores.

Ms. Gardella said that a business needn’t even be open to promote Small Business Saturdays. She cited the example of a hotel that was closed for the season, but offered a discount on a gift certificate for later in the year.

She said that the promotion also can work for B2B, and spoke of a flooring company that knew business would be slow in January and February, so offered a 20 percent discount to other businesses for work to be done during that time period.

The deals offered by merchants can take on many shapes; to qualify for Small Business Saturday, they just have to run a deal specific to Nov. 25. For their part, American Express promotes the event nationally with a heavy broadcast schedule, and tells cardmembers about local retailers participating in the promotion and highlights them on a map on their website. They offer a break on transaction fees to participating stores, and Amex cardholders get double reward points when they use their Amex card on Small Business Saturday.

Ms. Gardella estimates that for the past two years, around 50 stores on the Island have participated in Small Business Saturdays.

Heather Kochin, owner of Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven, said, “We’ve been doing our own Black Friday sale for about 15 years, and when American Express began promoting Small Business Saturdays, we decided to combine the two events.”

“Business has been brisk,” said Ms. Kochin; “it definitely creates an awareness … let’s say a customer buys $200 worth of merchandise, they get a discount from us, and Amex gives them a kickback … what’s not to like?”

Barbara Ronchetti, owner of Island Alpaca, said she’s been doing the promotion for about four or five years. Last year the first 20 people who came in and spent $50 or more would get a free tote bag. In addition, the customers would get bonus reward points from American Express.

Ms. Ronchetti said that there was a diagnostic tool on the American Express website that allowed stores to track purchases from customers who were registered for the Shop Small promotion, and she said that about 14 or 15 customers did business with Island Alpaca on the day of the promotion — “It doesn’t cost us anything,” said Ms. Ronchetti, “and it’s business I wouldn’t normally have. It’s worth it.”

Sarah York, general manager of CB Stark jewelers in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown, said that the promotion works out well. “It actually got us to do a whole weekend of sales,” she said. Even though the Small Business Saturdays promotion is only good on Saturday, she’s used the event as the centerpiece of an entire weekend-long sale.

American Express “put a lot of press into the idea of shopping locally,” said Ms. York. “In our case, maybe it will keep people from going off-Island; It’s good to have someone the size of Amex in our corner.”

When it was first introduced, Small Business Saturdays generated such positive publicity that the U.S. Senate officially proclaimed the Saturday after Thanksgiving as Small Business Saturday in 2011. Not to be outdone, the U.K. adopted Small Business Saturday in 2013.

Closer to home, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts (RAM) urged Massachusetts consumers to dedicate some of their shopping budgets toward local retailers, and to “shop like jobs depend on it, because they do.”