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Thinking Outside the Big Box

Small Business Saturday returns for the 10th year. Minnesota business owners say the event provides a much-needed revenue boost.

Thinking Outside the Big Box
Erin Kate Duininck, owner of Golden Rule Gallery in Excelsior, says sales from the event “literally pay the bills during February and March.”

As thousands of customers stream into big box stores and malls for Black Friday shopping, small businesses have one plea: Give the little guys a chance.

On Saturday, Small Business Saturday returns for the 10th year. Launched by American Express in 2010, the campaign urges shoppers to spend their dollars at local brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants. During the earlier years, American Express offered incentives to shop local, such as statement credits for cardholders. The credit card giant has dropped those incentives, but the campaign continues all the same. The Small Business Administration signed on as cosponsor in 2015. And this year, Gov. Tim Walz formally declared the day “Small Business Saturday.”

For some small shops in Minnesota, Small Business Saturday provides a much-needed revenue boost. Erin Kate Duininck, owner of Golden Rule Gallery along Excelsior’s Water Street shopping corridor, says sales from the event “literally pay the bills during February and March when Water Street can feel like a ghost town.”

“Black Friday is for mass consumption,” she adds. “Small Business Saturday is for thoughtfully chosen pieces and community celebration.”

Nationwide, shoppers spent a record $17.8 billion during Small Business Saturday last year, according to a survey by American Express and the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). That’s up from nearly $12 billion in 2017. For perspective, it’s estimated that online retailers pulled in $6.22 billion in Black Friday sales last year, according to Adobe Analytics research.

“Almost every year, the revenue generated from Small Business Saturday has gone up,” says Mike Hickey, NFIB state director for Minnesota. “But it’s all significant dollars. Small businesses are a significant player in the U.S. economy.”

Black Friday, meanwhile, has little relevance for smaller shops. (Some analysts argue that the annual shopping extravaganza is losing relevance for big box stores, too.) Many small stores simply don’t have the financial capacity to offer rock-bottom discounts.

“Working in small retail for 17 years, I have found that Black Friday has little impact on the small stores who can't compete with deeply discounted TVs and toilets,” says Kristofer Bowman, owner of Upstate MN in Grand Marais and Show and Tell in Minneapolis. “Perhaps it's because the shops I have worked in are not purveyors of mass-produced items that lend themselves to the deep discounts.”

Of course, there’s still pressure to cut prices. Greg Walsh, principal of MartinPatrick 3 in the North Loop, says discounts are “sort of expected by customers.” So, he’ll be lowering prices for the day. Ditto for Stephanie Morrissey, owner of Stephanie’s women’s clothing boutique in St. Paul.

“There is pressure to do a discount because everyone is doing it, and you want there to be a draw,” she says. “The better the discount and ‘extras,’ the more the draw.”

Ultimately, shoppers will be the ones to decide whether those discounts are worth their time and money. Small business owners will continue to make their case.

“You will not hear me complain of the evils of big box or online, because I know there is a lot to be said for convenience, choice, ease, and speed,” Duininck says. “But I would caution very strongly that we must be mindful that we don't make those spaces our only answer. I implore you: if you value your neighborhood bookstore, spend your money there. It is not enough to say you love it.”

Visit mspmag.com for a list of Twin Cities indie shops and neighborhoods to visit on Small Business Saturday.

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