The Brawl at the Mall. That's how detractors refer to Black Friday, the retailers' prom that makes headlines every year as shoppers line up to throw 'bows for bargains. There's a kinder, gentler way to get away from the family and get your shopping done this Thanksgiving weekend, and it comes with a lower instance of black eyes, too: Small Business Saturday, taking place this year on Nov. 29.
Charlotte has taken part in the event officially since 2010, when American Express started the campaign as a way to boost Main Street shops by offering cashback incentives to cardholders. This year, Charlotte's Small Business Saturday plans are bigger than ever, with a free trolley shuttle through an extensive loop in South End, a micro local pop-up shop and a billboard giveaway sponsored by the city's Business Advisory Board.
Yes, Small Business Saturday is another made-up holiday designed to open your wallet. But you were going to spend that money anyway, so you may as well do some good for your local economy and circulate those dollars in the community in the process.
Olive Stewart, founder of Bushelle Seasonings, is one of the organizers of Shop Micro Local, an annual pop-up shop that takes the "small" in Small Business Saturday even further.
"Micro local means, in terms of dollars, businesses making $5,000 to $10,000 a year. They don't have walls. A lot of them are startups, so their dollars are very small. They're working just as hard, if not harder, than brick and mortar stores, but they're not as visible so they're undiscovered. And they have unique things people don't know about. They just don't have the marketing dollars to get it out there."
Stewart's commitment to promoting micro-local businesses comes from a personal place. Her company makes fresh herb seasoning blends, which are carried in Whole Foods and Healthy Home Market. Last year, she was brainstorming ways to increase her exposure and take advantage of SBS. She came up with the idea of Shop Micro Local and reached out for help. The small business center at Central Piedmont Community College was a big help; they did the printing, press releases and helped with the marketing, and put Stewart in touch with Charlotte Center City Partners, who got Whiteside in South End to donate the space. The team pulled everything together in two weeks.
Center City's Tobe Holmes liked it that way. "I like the challenge of doing stuff like that, in a short time range so the energy stays high."
He says they vetted the businesses to make sure they were viable, and had insurance and operating licenses. But his main focus was promoting the micro-local businesses.
"Micro-local shops are not competing with bricks and mortar shops. In fact, some contribute to the local economy more so than bricks and mortar. Every dollar spent at big box stores is sent back to the headquarters, whether that's in New York or Bangladesh. It's not the biggest contribution in terms of dollar figures. But every dollar in local stores go to share in the local economy," Holmes says.
Statistics bear this out. Small businesses account for 54 percent of all U.S. sales, and small businesses have created 8 million jobs since 1990 according to the U.S. Small Businesses Administration. Small businesses also donate 250 percent more than larger businesses to nonprofits and community causes. If you spend $100 at a local business, roughly $68 stays in your local economy. And dollars spent in locally owned businesses have three times the impact in the community as dollars spent at national chains.
People from all over, including those in Charlotte visiting family for the holidays, came out to attend Shop Micro Local 2013. Several participating businesses made their public debut, generating client lists, and one was able to open up a brick and mortar shop in Cornelius. Shop Micro Local was such a success, this year Center City approached Stewart and asked her to do it again.
This year's event takes place at Triple C Brewing from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., with coffee, beer, music and of course, shopping. Vendors include Sadie's Caribbean Fishcakes, Guava Love Foods, Out of the Park BBQ and handbag designer Miss Pretty Perfect, among others. It is one of the stops along the South End Holiday Trolley, which runs all day on Small Business Saturday, making stops at popular shopping outposts along the way.
At non-holiday times, the micro-local businesses keep in touch via the Shop Micro Local Facebook and Twitter pages, posting event announcements, asking questions and giving each other feedback.
"We're absolutely building a community, and growing in terms of awareness, too," Stewart says.
Natasha Warren is working to grow Small Business Saturday in a different way. The city's Small Business Services manager oversaw a contest to award free billboard advertising to a local firm. The digital billboards are located around the EpiCentre in Uptown Charlotte, near College, Trade and 4th streets. The ads, which will be unveiled on Small Business Saturday, will rotate on the different billboards throughout the day, running every hour through the month of December. Between 20 and 30 companies submitted for the contest, from a diverse mix of firms. The board narrowed it down to five finalists and Search Solution Group, an executive recruitment company, won the prize.
The goal of the contest was to celebrate small businesses, but there was an added purpose at work.
"We wanted to let people know about the charlottebusinessresources.com website and range of support," Warren says. "A lot of times the ones who need the most help are trying to flesh out an idea. So if [the website] can't provide the answer, they can at least find a resource that can help."
American Express reported that in 2013, $5.7 billion dollars were spent by consumers aware of Small Business Saturday, compared to $5.5 billion in 2012. But even if consumers don't spend on the actual Saturday, the publicity of Small Business Saturday has raised awareness of small and micro-local businesses, making them more likely to spend at small businesses on other days. And community-oriented, locally aware people like this? Much less likely to punch their way through a sales rack.