AP Photo/Akira Suemori

Shops use sleigh rides and treats to entice customers on Small Business Saturday.

Five minutes before closing on the night before Thanksgiving, David Zawicki is wiping down the glass counter at Lark & Co. General Store, a home goods shop in Birmingham, Michigan. Earrings, rings, and all sorts of baubles sparkle underneath. Zawicki has just finished topping a tabletop evergreen with gobs of white snow. “It doesn’t look a stitch like Christmas,” he said. “Not yet.”

The staff has the day off on Thursday, but the store will be open early and late on Saturday to capitalize on the town’s Small Business Saturday promotions. There’s a “Shop Small” banner flapping from the nearby parking deck.

The shopping initiative, originally launched in 2010 by the credit card company American Express, has positioned itself as the antidote to frenzied free-for-alls at big-box or department stores on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. (This year, the day has even been recognized by a Congressional resolution.)  

Black Friday is, in many ways, the extreme opposite of the archetype of the cozy Thanksgiving buffet, which conjures the smell of savory herbs and sleepy, full stomachs. Maybe that eating is just an extended exercise in carbo-loading, or fueling up for a marathon of shopping.

Thanksgiving Day holiday shoppers line up in Chicago on November 28, 2013. (REUTERS/Jeff Haynes)

There’s something gladiatorial about clamoring to score doorbuster sales—an event which, as Megan Garber has pointed out in The Atlantic, begs to be described with words such as “throngs,” and “masses.” It’s a spectacle. (One that, in part, inspired outdoor-equipment chain REI to stay closed this year.)

In theory, at least, Small Business Saturday makes sense: Remind consumers to support small shops, which define the character of a city and bolster local economies. But it’s not necessarily that simple. In some respects, Small Business Saturday becomes a competition to out-charm other mom-and-pop shops.

To lure customers—and their money—some business owners and districts produce something splashy. There will be caroling and sleigh rides to and from shops in Princeton, Montana, free concerts in New Mexico, a cannoli truck in Branford, Connecticut, and a citywide selfie contest in Clinton, Iowa, in which shoppers are encouraged to snap a shot of themselves mugging at their favorite local spot.

Last year, in Michigan, the Dearborn Chamber of Commerce doled out American Express gift cards to the first 25 people to spend more than $100 in at least one of 224 participating shops, cafes—even dental offices. In the nearby suburb of Birmingham, shoppers received stamps in a little passport, and the person who racked up the most received a pair of airline vouchers, the Detroit News reported. In neighboring Royal Oak, customers could take advantage of free valet parking.

How important is it for small businesses to compete on this particular day?

“Small Business Saturday is probably our biggest day,” Zawicki says. “Bigger than Black Friday, by far.” They don’t do much out of the ordinary to cater to customers. “We may throw a last minute sale,” Zawicki says, “but people come in anyways.”

During the holiday weekend, he adds, many of his customers are from out of town, strolling around the shopping district as part of a family outing.

Baker County Tourism/Flickr

According to a recent survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses and American Express, 77 percent of customers surveyed planned to participate in the event, and 83 percent indicated that it encouraged them to frequent mom-and-pop stores throughout the rest of the year. The survey also found that consumers do about 35 percent of their holiday shopping at small businesses.

Data from the National Retail Federation found that 55 percent of holiday shoppers made purchases over Thanksgiving weekend last year.

That’s why it’s surprising that, writing at Entrepreneur, business owner Gene Marks scoffs at the effort that some shops put in for the weekend. He doesn’t think it’s worth it. Talking to other store owners, he says:

Pity the competitor who actually thinks that Small Business Saturday is going to benefit their business. And after you’ve pitied him on Saturday I know what you’re going to do. You’re going to go out and crush him on Monday.

The combative approach, apparently, isn't reserved for shoving fellow shoppers out of the way to dive towards a doorbuster deal.

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