Small Business Saturday has been a thing for a decade.
American Express launched it in 2010 — on the heels of a recession — to encourage spending holiday shopping dollars at small businesses.
Small Business Saturday 2020 falls on Nov. 28 — and in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s always important to have people support Small Business Saturday,” says Laura Haiges, owner of the Lancaster children’s boutique Bellaboo.
This year, she says, it’s critical.
“We’re all just trying to make up for so much,” says Haiges, one of countless store owners trying to recuperate during a year when — for a few months — online orders and hand deliveries kept utility bills paid while doors were closed.
“It made us appreciate how much Lancaster really appreciates small businesses,” Haiges says. “They saw what we were going through. People were staying home. They didn’t really need the newest outfits. But they were ordering them.”
About 60% of businesses that closed temporarily due to the pandemic have not reopened, according to a September Economic Average report from Yelp. That is 97,966 businesses permanently closed, according to Yelp.
In Pennsylvania, 76.7% of small businesses say they have felt a moderate-to-large negative effect from the pandemic, according to an October U.S. Census Bureau Small Business Pulse Survey. That compared to 74.8% of small businesses who said so nationally.
One day isn’t likely to change that too much.
American Express actually only mentions Small Business Saturday in small print on its website this year. In a larger font, the credit card giant urges shoppers — be it online or in person — to “Share Joy: Shop Small All Season Long.”
Small Business Saturday will kick off a series of “Festive Saturdays” being promoted by entities like the Lancaster City Alliance, says Anne Williams, director of communications.
“It will be four days. Sort of like come downtown, shop, have dinner, have that Hallmark Channel experience,” she says.
Granted, that experience will look pandemic appropriate — with visual cues to social distance, masks and some plexiglass.
“I myself have been shopping in the city and they’ve really all been following the guidelines,” Williams says.
She says another difference this year is the level of the cooperation among organizations like the Alliance, the Lancaster Office of Promotion, Discover Lancaster, the Lancaster Barnstormers and Fig.
“A lot of organizations recognize the significance of this holiday season for our merchants. So we are working together,” she says.
In the past, those groups might highlight each other’s efforts on social media, Williams says.
“This year we’re really pooling together our resources and making sure we’re providing the most help that we can,” she says.
Shoppers will notice some elaborately decorated trees in some stores and restaurants this year. Part of the Lancaster Barnstormers third annual Christmas Tree Lane to benefit nonprofits, those trees were set up in Clipper Magazine Stadium last year.
“We weren’t going to have people walking through this year. We were going to do it virtually,” says Alexandra Bunn, promotions and sponsorship fulfillment manager for the Barnstormers. “So we thought we might as well have people host them. Hopefully that will help draw more people into the businesses.”
As for Discover Lancaster, small business promotion might not be the first thing that pops to mind given that the organization promotes the county’s tourism industry for which large, crowd-drawing destinations like Sight & Sound and Dutch Wonderland are key.
“Some of our small businesses need all the help that they can get,” says CEO Edward Harris. “So we’re proud that we can be a community partner to help build awareness for these key businesses.”
Part of that means reaching the “staycation” crowd, he says. That also means making sure visitors from other markets know what’s open and safe when they visit, Harris says. And they are planning visits, he says. Traffic to the Discover Lancaster website is lately up more than 40%.
“People would rather get in a car and take a trip than get on an airplane,” he says. Harris says that thanks to the federal CARES Act money that the county directed to Discover Lancaster, holiday season television ads will run in markets like Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C.
Before starting as Discover Lancaster CEO this year, Harris was with the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board. Before that he held brand management roles at Converse, eBay, Under Armour and Timberland. So he is familiar what a strong — or weak — start to the holiday season can mean.
“This is the time of year where retailers must thrive. The fourth quarter is very important. And we have to realize that we’re up against record year-over-year growth in terms of online sales,” Harris says. “So to combat that, we still have to have that foot traffic into our brick-and-mortar stores.”
Lancaster County is rich with entrepreneurs, Harris says.
“I’m as passionate as they are in terms of wanting to bring in the traffic, because these retailers are unique,” he says. “And they’re part of the experience people have when they come to the city or come to the county.”
Safe and creative
Wherever shoppers come from, retailers are thinking through how best to serve them on Small Business Saturday.
James Farbo’s plan is to have bundles ready to go at his West Grant Street store Farbo Co., a self-described “general nerdery.”
If someone is shopping for a gift for a Dungeons & Dragons player, for example, he will have sets of unique items packaged with others that someone would welcome as duplicates. He’ll also have ready-to-go bundles for those into graphic novels, model building and card games.
“I have family members who are immune compromised,” Farbo says. “I am just doing what we can to keep as many people safe as possible. Calculated risks.”
Jason Ziegler is also doing some grab-and-go packages for those who aren’t interested in spending as much time browsing his Lancaster Pickle Co. on Saturday. He’s making some ahead of time and others to-order for those who call or Facebook message ahead with requests.
“Right now they don’t want to sit and chat. They want to wear their masks, grab a couple items,” he says. “Normally our store is a hangout. We’d offer complimentary wine and beer. But they don’t want that right now. They want to buy their stuff and leave.”
Ziegler thinks he will end the year better than he did in 2019 — a scenario he couldn’t have imagined earlier this year when everything shut down.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to reopen,” he says. “But I woke up one morning and said, ‘No. We’ve been around now almost 12 ½ years. I’m not giving up.’ So I moved to a bigger location.”
He’s now in what until this year had been an antique store. So far the move has paid off, says Ziegler, who believes supporting small business is part of why many customers have upped their order amounts.
“The loyalty is amazing. They see you’re working. They see you’re here,” he says. “And they want you to stay here.”