It’s a little tough to feel jolly this holiday season, if you’re a small-business owner. Bruised by the recession and uneasy about the postelection economy, America’s small businesses face yet another big unknown: whether consumers are feeling festive or frugal.
This weekend, they’ve got a great chance to find out: Small Business Saturday, the annual “shop local" day designed to pump up mom-and-pop businesses.
Squeezed between the Black Friday mall frenzy and Cyber Monday’s online shopping kickoff, it’s a chance for the small retailer to shine.
“Whether it’s a bookstore, auto shop or restaurant, they’re still very uncertain about how many customers will come through the door," said John Kabateck, California director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
That’s because retailers are getting mixed messages about consumer spending, coupled with uncertainty about taxes, health care mandates and other economic realities that’s made them skittish about 2013.
“‘Tentative’ is a good word," said Brian Lawrence, store manager of Emigh Outdoor Living in Sacramento, Calif., describing what he sees as shoppers’ attitudes so far. “We’re hoping for a 10 percent increase in holiday sales over last year. But it’s challenging."
At his outdoor furnishings store, those holiday hopes are hanging from the branches of about 25 elaborately decorated Christmas trees, part of the store’s annual changeover into a home decorating marketplace of trees, wreaths, candles and table decor.
Some projections say this Black Friday weekend will be a good one for the nation’s malls and chains, launching a November-December season where sales are expected to reach $586.1 billion, up 4.1 percent from last year.
But small-business owners like Lawrence are hoping that shoppers seeking personal service will look beyond the big-box retailers.
Retirees Jeannette and Richard Nardinelli, who stopped at Emigh’s recently to look for St. Nicholas Day ornaments for their grandchildren, don’t need convincing.
“We try to do everything local and patronize local businesses," said Jeannette Nardinelli, a Sacramento resident. “It’s important to support the neighborhood you live in."
This year, the average holiday shopper will spend an estimated $751 on gifts, decorations and other holiday purchases, according to the National Retail Federation. How much of that winds up in the pockets of small-business owners is hard to estimate.
The NRF doesn’t track sales specifically to small retailers, but notes that 95 percent of the nation’s retailers are independent companies with one location.
Started in 2010 during the recent recession, Small Business Saturday is a collaboration between American Express and the NFIB.
“It started from a small idea to become a growing fixture across California — and the nation — to address small businesses’ No. 1 need: more customers," said Kabateck, NFIB’s director in Sacramento.
For many small businesses, holiday sales can represent nearly 20 percent of annual sales, according to industry estimates.
“Coming out of the election, the volume was turned up on how important small businesses are to the economy. There was a lot of dialogue and rhetoric," said Kabateck. “We hope that translates to patronizing their corner store instead of their big box."
Some consumers have already embraced that notion. Rebecca Sturges, a Sacramento marriage and family therapist, decided several months ago that all of her holiday purchases for family and friends will be done locally.
She’s buying cycling gear at local bike shops for her husband. She’s gone to the kitchenware section of Hollywood Hardware, a neighborhood store, to look for “girlfriend gifts." And to fill two outdoor camping gift boxes for her college-age children, she’s even scoured local Goodwill outlets.
Why? “I like the idea that the money I spend stays here in Sacramento, rather than some online retailer 2,000 miles away," Sturges said. “It’s not all about price or saving a couple dollars online."
Another burst of shop-local enthusiasts are so-called “cash mobs," groups of Facebook friends that descend — cash in hand — on a designated small business on a given day to plump up sales. The idea got started in 2011 and has caught on in dozens of cities across the country. Under unofficial “mob rules," participants are asked to spend $20 each and meet afterward at a local bar to celebrate.
For devotees of the shop-local movement, it’s a way to ensure their local business community stays healthy, lively and profitable. As Sturges put it: “If we’re not their customers, who will be?"