BERLIN — While the big retailers inch Black Friday forward in an attempt to stretch the holiday shopping rush, small retailers are taking the opposite tack with the help of an unlikely sponsor: American Express.
Last year the credit card company inaugurated Small Business Saturday to highlight supporting small local businesses not only as part of the shopping season but also as a more approachable, sustainable way of conceiving retail.
This year six Berlin businesses — Abigail’s, Bruder Hill, Bungalow Love, j.j.Fish Studio, Simply Shades and Victorian Charm — are participating by offering special Small Business Saturday discounts. Community and Economic Development Director Michael Day said he hopes the local merchants’ success spawns greater participation as the program continues.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the town and the merchants,” he said.
The idea of a coordinated, national movement that focuses on supporting local small business might seem a bit paradoxical but American Express has been a longtime supporter of small businesses, according to Advisor to Small Business Saturday Patricia Norins.
“Last year we had more than 130 [government, non-profit and business] partners,” she said. “Companies of all sizes are jumping on the bandwagon.”
This year, she said, the number of partners has grown to 150 including FedEx, which recently issued $1 million in $25 “Shop Small Business Saturday” cards. For its part American Express issued incentive statement credits to 200,000 cardholders in support of the event.
Norins said research released recently by American Express Open shows towns that have strong small retail business districts, like Berlin, have property values 50 percent higher than in small towns with no thriving retail center.
The most surprising aspect of the research, Norins said, was that independent retailers make up 46 percent of the U.S. retail market. With nearly half of retail purchases already coming from local providers, a coordinated promotional effort can stimulate local economies significantly.
The Website it has developed — smallbusinesssaturday.com — encourages people to commit to participating by making purchases from local providers Nov. 26 this year, the day after Black Friday.
So named because it puts retailers “in the black” for the calendar year, Black Friday has become almost a major sporting event complete with altercations and war stories.
Berlin has had an answer to the Black Friday craze for years in the form of Holiday Arts Night. Billed originally as a way to shake off a day of shopping anxiety and relax, the event begins 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25.
Downtown businesses stay open late and many have featured artists or special events that often are accompanied by light snacks in each store. What makes the event so popular is the pervasive festive attitude. While plenty of people come to shop, they do so without the aggression or desperation that generally marks the Black Friday rush.
The idea of extending this notion into Saturday by offering one day only specials designed to entice customers rather than set them against one another in a race for limited deals is something some of the local merchants find appealing.
“With Holiday Arts Night the night before, this could be one of the best weekends of the year for merchants,” Day said.
For Norins, an additional way to look at Small Business Saturday is as a natural extension of what is already a weekend designated for shopping events. In addition to Black Friday, Internet retailers have been promoting Cyber Monday and offering incentives for people to spend the last day of the long weekend shopping online.
In this way, Small Business Saturday fits nicely into a weekend with different days for different kinds of shopping. What sets it apart, though, is that local retailers often stock unique items that customers can touch before buying.
Moreover, the store employees tend to be more knowledgeable about the items for sale. This is especially true of Berlin, where many clerks are not only the storeowners but are also on a first name relationship with their various purveyors.
Main Street Maryland is one of the participating non-profits and, as such, nearly all of the designated Main Street Maryland towns in the region are participating in the promotion. Should it continue to grow and become successful, it is likely that Holiday Arts Night could be the weekend kickoff event for Berlin that the Black Friday mega-sales have become for larger national chains.
Although there is no requirement in order to participate in the local sales, Small Business Saturday is a personal movement and in that way encourages people to pledge their participation on the Website www.smallbusinesssaturday.com