Three weeks before Thanksgiving 2011, Betsy Cross and her husband and business partner Will Cerviarich, owners of the boutique Betsy and Iya in Portland, Oregon, devised a plan to help their small business and others compete with national retailers during the busiest shopping weekend of the year.
They created Little Boxes Portland, a promotion sponsored by local small businesses where shoppers earn the opportunity for rewards with every store visit and with every purchase. In 2015, Little Boxes racked up more than 7,300 purchases for the 200 participating stores, and recorded 22,500 shop visits in promotion's sixth year.
"We wanted to be the alternative to thinking of shopping as competition," says Cerviarich. "Little Boxes operates at a slower pace and stays away from the rat race you may find at the mall."
Shoppers inevitably hit their favorite stores first, but the Little Boxes Portland concept creates additional incentive for exploring other shops in the area, Cerviarich says. Participating stores also cross-promote @LittleBoxesPDX on their own social media to spread the word.
The result is anything but small: According to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), total spending among U.S. consumers who were aware of Small Business Saturday reached $16.2 billion at independent retailers and restaurants in 2015 , an increase of 14 percent from 2014.
Here, retailers from across the country share their winning ideas for harnessing Small Business Saturday in a way that helped them to boost sales, build brand awareness and grow their customer base.
Meet the makers (and feed your customers)
"My customers love to meet the craftsmen and hear their stories," says Ann Cantrell, owner of Annie's Blue Ribbon General Store in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to opening an hour early on Small Business Saturday and hosting a continental breakfast with pastries from a local bakery, Cantrell introduces customers to a few of the "makers" who supply her shop with one-of-a-kind wares.
"I try to radiate thankfulness and positivity, so this is one way I can pamper my customers, while staying top of mind on this busy shopping weekend," she says. "People could choose to run amok at a larger retail store, but I think many prefer what I call the ‘sweet kindness' of local shopping where the owners know their names."
One thing that's not part of her Small Business Saturday plans? Deep discounts, which Cantrell associates with the sales tactics of large, national retailers. "Our products are wonderful in their own right."
Team up with other small businesses
For Small Business Saturday, Anthony Quaiyum, president of Merz Apothecary in Chicago, invites the store's suppliers to donate products for Merz's sought-after sampler gift bags (think: small sachets, mini soaps and travel lotions), which are given to the first 150 shoppers. It takes some effort to put the bags together, but Merz says his shoppers flip for the little gifts.
The gift bags also bolster good will with his vendors. "Our brands are very appreciative of the support they receive from independent stores and are very willing to help us out," says Quaiyum.
Quaiyum also ramps up his regular Staff Picks promotion of posting employees' video product reviews. On Small Business Saturday, Quaiyum assembles a table of noteworthy finds and employees are on hand to discuss the featured products. "It doesn't get more neighborly and intimate than seeing a review of a product, then going to the store and talking to the person who recommended it," says Quaiyum.
Offer exclusive buys and other incentives
Last year, Cordell Miles, owner of Music Masters Worldwide in Downers Grove, Illinois, tapped into Record Store Day on Small Business Saturday, when independent music stores receive exclusive releases or stage performances and album signings geared for diehard audiophiles and music aficionados. Releases run the gamut from indie artists to legends like David Bowie or Prince, and are aimed squarely at customers who appreciate the knowledge and passion of indie music stores. "Distributors will sell one record to the masses, and send a special, exclusive release to us – it might be colored vinyl or have a limited edition poster," says Miles.
Miles plans to promote Small Business Saturday through his customer newsletter and on social media platforms, but the store also receives support and exposure from the National Record Store Day organization. "The support they offer really helps us stand out," he says.
Join the community to generate buzz
"To say Small Business Saturday has a huge impact on my community is a tremendous understatement," says BJ Dowlen, founder and president of the sports performance group Bodyworks Enterprises, LLC. "For most of us, it's the kickoff to money-making season."
Dowlen credits Small Business Saturday with helping her local business community – spread along the Jersey Shore –come back after Superstorm Sandy. In 2015, stores were re-opening after rebuilding, but faced an uphill battle letting customers know they were back in business, says Dowlen.
To help, Dowlen, along with her mother and sister, filmed interviews with 11 local businesses, ranging from a gourmet Italian market to a running store, and posted the videos online. "We highlighted great products and services they offer," Dowlen recalls. "We talked to merchants about what owning small business means to them, and their responses — from allowing their kids to play soccer to putting a daughter through college — really hit home."
Local merchants cross-promoted the video on their own social outlets, spurring thousands of tweet and retweets. The videos drove traffic into the stores at a critical time in their comeback, says Dowlen. It also turned a few employees into minor celebrities. "They had shoppers pose for selfies and ask for autographs."
To track the effect, for two weeks after Small Business Saturday, cashiers at Joe Leone's Italian Specialties asked customers how they heard about the store. More than 100 first-time customers cited the online video, according to Leone, who notes that many of those first-time shoppers are now regular customers.
Dowlen filmed another round of videos and expanded the reach by asking each participant to invite another merchant.
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