ASHEVILLE – Before the blue doormat arrived a few weeks ago with the words “Shop Small” stenciled in white lettering, Leslie Hawkins said the Saturday after Thanksgiving had always been business as usual for Spellbound Children’s Bookshop.
“I got used to that weekend not being huge for us,” Hawkins said of her independent bookstore for both kids and kids-at-heart. “People that were interested in shopping that weekend were heading to the bigger stores.”
Big box stores have long claimed Black Friday as the time for early door-busting deals. In recent years, Cyber Monday gave online retailers a new reason to encourage customers to click their way through the holiday shopping season.
However, with her doormat, posters and tote bags ready to go, Hawkins said she thinks this will be the year when thinking small will give Western North Carolina entrepreneurs like herself a big boost for the holiday season.
“People have to see or hear a message so many times before it sticks, but I think it’s starting to catch on,” Hawkins said. “We want people to shop small year-round, but with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we want to make a special effort on our day: Small Business Saturday.”
The fifth-annual shopping event, which began in 2010 as a project of American Express, encourages people to forgo the large retail chains and instead shop for gifts at local businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
According to a survey conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, consumer spending with independent merchants neared $5.7 billion during last year’s Small Business Saturday event.
Though Hawkins said her gut feeling about this year’s Small Business Saturday was just a hunch, research backs up her instincts.
During this year’s event, 82 percent of U.S. consumers say they plan to shop or eat at an independently owned store or restaurant, according to the American Express Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Study.
However, the buy local movement is not a new concept in Western North Carolina.
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One year before American Express dreamed up Small Business Saturday, members of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance had already designed their “Local is the New Black” shirts as a way to remind folks to find an alternative to the big-box store on Black Friday.
“We have a very strong campaign, and we have very strong marketing materials, and we really concentrate on using the ones we already have in place,” said Franzi Charen, founder of Asheville Grown Business Alliance and co-owner of Hip Replacements boutique. “You’re not really going to see the Love Asheville Small Business Saturday poster come out anytime soon.”
The “Buy Local” advocacy group began its grassroots campaign in 2009, and is also the creator of the annual Go Local Card.
The rewards card program brings hundreds of locally owned, independent businesses together each year for a fundraiser. Half of the $16 card price goes directly to Asheville City Schools Foundation and the other $8 goes back to Asheville Grown.
“When most communities have kids selling candy bars and wrapping paper, our kids in our community are selling the Go Local Card,” Charen said, noting that cardholders get a discount at participating businesses. “It’s about connecting schools supporting local businesses, and local businesses supporting schools.”
According to American Express spokesperson Nicole Leinbach-Reyhle, communities like Asheville and Western North Carolina may stand to benefit more than others on Small Business Saturday.
“When you have a community like Asheville that rallies together to support shopping at small businesses all year long and then makes Small Business Saturday a celebration, too, that’s where we see more success,” Leinbach-Reyhle said. “It takes small businesses, communities and consumers to keep small businesses alive.”
Jeff Milchen, the co-director and co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance, agrees. His nonprofit organization has helped more than 90 groups, including Asheville Grown, jump start their “go local” movements for more than a decade.
When people are already knowledgeable about the impact they can make in their community by shopping at local businesses, Milchen said, “It can provide a boost for small businesses from a much higher starting point.
“Small Business Saturday has a very positive impact wherever folks are getting the message out to buy local, but it’s certainly going to be multiplied further if groups, like Asheville Grown Business Alliance, continue to raise people’s awareness about the benefits of shopping locally throughout the year,” he said.
‘A ripple effect’
According to a study done by the research group Civic Economics, 48 percent of money spent at mom-and-pop establishments recirculates in the community, compared to 14 percent of purchases at chain stores.
“Spending dollars locally has a ripple effect that extends economic benefits in the region where it is spent,” said Heidi Reiber, director of research for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. “For example, when demand for a local product or service increases, a business may spend more in the local supply chain, or they may add staff to their payroll increasing household income.”
In addition to investing dollars in the local economy, the event is also about highlighting the community and the businesses that shape it.
“Small business is a very important part of Asheville’s economy. More than 85 percent of Asheville Chamber members have fewer than 50 employees,” said Erin Leonard, director of communications for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. “It is an opportunity for stores to showcase their products and develop relationships with customers who will return time and again throughout the year.”
Bethany Adams, the owner and artist of Rhetorical Factory, opened her Haywood Road storefront about six months ago. As a relative newcomer to the historic West Asheville thoroughfare, Adams said Small Business Saturday doubles as a day where she can tell customers both hello and thank you.
“For us, it’s like a celebration,” Adams said. “It’s a chance for people who have been participating in Small Business Saturday and the go local movement to get a chance to shine.”
On Saturday, the store opens one hour early at 10 a.m. and will offer surprise discounts for patrons who purchase more than $50 of merchandise.
“I’m sure everybody could grab somebody they know who hasn’t been shopping local. With this event, it’s an opportunity to spread the word,” she said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near saturating Asheville citizens with information about what it means to make local, ethical choices.”
Farther north at The Shops and Reynolds Village, Hawkins said her bookshop wants to up the ante by also participating in the Indies First campaign.
The initiative asks independent bookstores to invite authors to sell books in local shops on Small Business Saturday. Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café will also be participating in Indies First.
This year, Hawkins said she will have two authors in her store instead of one; and when patrons buy a book recommended by one of the guest booksellers, they will receive a 10 percent discount.
“We want to remind people that what we offer, you can’t get with a click of a button,” she said.
A stronger regional economy
Almost 68 miles from Asheville, Historic Downtown Franklin has been searching for a way to get people thinking about its small businesses during the holiday shopping season.
Unlike larger cities, smaller towns face their own challenges by having less name recognition and fewer businesses in their downtown shopping districts.
However, Town Manager Summer Woodard said it’s what makes her hometown different from other cities in WNC that makes it special.
“Main Street is ever-changing,” Woodard said. “Within the past five years, you saw Main Street try to capture the outdoors scene with new outdoors stores, a bicycle shop and a ton of new businesses.”
To highlight the changes while giving locals and tourists the small-town treatment, the Macon County town has moved its annual Winter Wonderland festival up for the first time in its history to coincide with Small Business Saturday.
“With every festival, you’ve got to revamp and regroup,” said Woodard. “This an opportunity for visitors and residents alike who may not have ventured out to come to a new store that’s opened. Even if they don’t buy something that day, they may come back to it to shop for Valentine’s Day or for a birthday.”
The Franklin Main Street Program, like the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, partnered with American Express to become a Neighborhood Champion of Small Business Saturday.
In return, American Express provided these partners with free promotional materials, like doormats, tote bags and balloons, to increase awareness about Small Business Saturday.
In North Carolina, there are a total of 105 Neighborhood Champions.
Though the Brevard is not an official Neighborhood Champion, the executive director of the Heart of Brevard said a number of businesses will be participating. He said many see this as a crucial time of year.
“There is a lot of tourism that happens in Western North Carolina, but January and February aren’t the best months in the mountains,” Heath Seymour said. “Being able to do as well as they can leading into December is key.”
In the past year, Seymour said downtown Brevard has seen an increase in demand not only from consumers, but from entrepreneurs looking to open their business.
“We’ve moved into a position where we have more people interested in opening shops than we have the right space for in downtown Brevard,” Seymour said.
Between what he hears from businesses, tourists and locals, Seymour said the growing interest in local shops combined with Small Business Saturday could be the catalyst for a stronger regional economy.
“Asheville is a fairly large shopping hub, but a lot of these other places give a lot of character and life to this whole region,” Seymour said.
“Without the small independent shops and galleries, and the different things you can find in these smaller towns, I think the whole region would be less of a draw. Shopping at small businesses can only help these small towns, like Brevard, stay around. It helps keep the doors open, the traffic moving and the people coming to Western North Carolina.”
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