Small businesses woo shoppers

After the crowds have shopped at large stores and sprawling malls on Black Friday, many smaller businesses, including ones contacted in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans, are hoping Saturday will be their day.

Thousands of small stores, restaurants, spas — and even dry cleaners — across the U.S. will offer their own discounts and promotions to draw holiday shoppers on what’s known as Small Business Saturday.

Tyler Hicks, operations manager for The Backpacker on Jefferson Highway, said the important benefit his outdoors store will get from Small Business Saturday is public awareness.

“This brings up the conversation why it is important to shop at local small businesses, even for one day a year,” Hicks said. “The main thing is for people to take the time to remember how important it is to support local businesses to support our local economy.”

American Express created the day three years ago, it said, to help small businesses struggling during the recession. The credit and charge card company encourages cardholders, who have registered in advance online, to make purchases with their cards in exchange for a $25 rebate paid for by American Express, if they buy something at a participating business. American Express won’t say how much the promotion costs, but Susan Sobbott, president of American Express OPEN, the company’s small business division, said it is a considerable amount.

The Backpacker plans to mark the day with a wide variety of Saturday-only sales.

“We’re going to run sales all weekend long, but Saturday will be the most lucrative for our customers,” Hicks said.

Even small merchants who aren’t officially part of the event hope to get a bump in revenue during a weekend when they used to be all but forgotten in an avalanche of deep discounts offered by big stores and online retailers. Perhaps more importantly, the day has become an opportunity for small businesses to build a corps of customers who will keep coming back year-round.

Gina Babineaux is the owner of Artesia, a clothing and accessories store on Johnston Street in Lafayette. She is also the founder of Shop Local Acadiana, an alliance of 50 small businesses. Thirty members of Shop Local Acadiana plan to participate in Small Business Saturday, Babineaux said.

“That’s good participation for this area,” she said.

Babineaux said Small Business Saturday is a good way of letting shoppers realize the importance of locally owned businesses, a message that is boosted by the marketing muscle of American Express.

“We hope that shoppers see that we have more customer service, more selection and more of a hometown feel,” she said. “It does matter where you spend your money.”

Artesia plans to continue its Black Friday sales on Saturday. The store will also offer giveaways to shoppers who spend $25 or more. Babineaux said they’ll be able to choose an ornament that has a “tangible prize” — everything from store items to gift cards. “That works well for us,” she said. “People will be able to get a free item, thanks to the $25 credit, and they’ll win something.”

American Express may have intended to give small merchants — and card usage — a boost in a tough economy, but Small Business Saturday is also helping small merchants get a bigger share of the spotlight and spending between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, a shopping holiday dreamed up to get people excited about shopping online on the Monday after Thanksgiving. For some retailers, the sales they get after people push back from the Thanksgiving dinner table represents a significant chunk of profit for the year. That hasn’t been so true for most small businesses. In a survey commissioned by Bank of America, 91 percent of the 1,003 small-business owners said the day after Thanksgiving has little, or no, effect on their profit.

“It’s not like we count on it for a huge boost in sales, but every little bit helps,” said Sam Poitevent, one of the owners of Feet First, a shoe and accessory store on Magazine Street in New Orleans. “If we get four or five more people coming in to shop during Saturday, we consider that to be a victory.”

A search of the special Web page set up for Small Business Saturday reveals many businesses that most people don’t think of as places to buy gifts, including restaurants, churches and dry cleaners taking part.

Although the Thanksgiving weekend is shopping-focused, American Express purposely created the program so that any small business can take part.

The company has found that restaurants are the top choice for consumers wanting to use the $25 rebate, followed by bakeries, clothing stores, gift shops and bookstores.