Small businesses await their piece of holiday pie

Nov 25 2011 - 11:59pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Crowds on Friday lined up at malls and big-box stores for bargain prices on televisions, laptops and hand-held video games. Today, small businesses hope it's their turn.

Across the nation, locally owned stores are offering incentives as part of the second annual Small Business Saturday, a campaign to help these businesses get a share of the multibillion-dollar holiday retail sales season.

Customers at 72 Shoe Boutique in south Charlotte, for example, will be entered into a contest to win a gift certificate worth double the amount of their purchase, for up to $500.

"The economy really needs small businesses, along with the big boxes," owner Jennifer Keen said.

Intentionally sandwiched between the blowout bargains of Black Friday and the online shopping surge of Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday is all about boosting independently owned and operated businesses.

The November and December stretch can be a make-or-break time for many stores depending on the holiday rush for the majority of their annual business. For mall kiosks and temporary holiday stores, for example, as much as 80 percent of business comes during the holiday season, said Patricia Norins, a retail consultant and Small Business Saturday shopping expert for American Express, the event's creator.

Last year's inaugural Small Business Saturday drew kudos as well as some critics, who called it a poorly advertised promotion that better served the credit card giant than local businesses. American Express doesn't have figures on how many shopped small businesses last year.

This year's campaign includes a television commercial blitz and the Facebook campaign with more than 2.4 million "likes." American Express also has an offer granting 300,000 preregistered shoppers $25 credits for using their cards Saturday at small businesses also registered with the event.

American Express is sponsoring special events in 15 cities. In Charlotte's South End neighborhood, for example, merchants and city tourism leaders are hosting a daylong celebration that includes gift-wrapping stations, live music and visits with Santa.

Elsewhere, merchants are promoting the day through special incentives. At The Last Word, a Charlotte store that sells used books, CDs, DVDs and videos, customers will get 5 percent off any purchase.

The year-old store counts this holiday shopping season as critical, owner Elizabeth Pope said, since business slowed a bit in September and October after students returned to school.

"I'm hoping people see opportunity ... to buy used things for less money. They can make their money go farther," Pope said. "I'm hoping this season brings in people who haven't considered us before."

Keen, the shoe boutique owner, hopes Saturday's gift-certificate contest spurs customers to buy boots and other winter styles. By January, her store features resort-wear and spring styles, Keen said. "You don't want to go into the new year with leftover inventory from the previous season."

South End merchant Rodney Hines of High Cotton Home, a furnishings boutique, sent 5,000 emails informing customers about special discounts on some items Saturday and touting its unique offerings, from leather-encased napkin holders to luxurious bedding.

Hines said Small Business Saturday is the chance for local owners to show off what makes them special year-round:

"Good product, good merchandising and good service."

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(c)2011 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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