Small Business Strategies: Shop 'small' this holiday season

— -- President Obama did it. Republicans did it. I did it. So did 103 million other Americans. We shopped at independent stores on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 26. We bought gifts in small stores, ate meals at small restaurants. Now how do we keep customers coming back to small businesses throughout the holiday season?

Small Business Saturday was the most successful "shop local" campaign I've seen in my 20 years of advocating for small companies. Yes, I know it's a promotional campaign started by American Express, but let's give credit where credit is due. Small Business Saturday significantly raised awareness of the importance of patronizing small businesses.

According to American Express, the sponsor of Small Business Saturday, about one-third of Americans shopped at an independent business on Nov. 26, and sales from Amex cardholders at those businesses increased 23% over last year's Small Business Saturday. Over 2.7 million people "liked" the Small Business Saturday Facebook page; to put that in perspective, that's more Facebook fans than NASCAR.

"Black Friday was the best day ever in my history, and Small Business Saturday was right up there," said Pam Hammond, owner of the delightful gift shop, Paddington Station, in Ashland, Ore.

Ashland is always packed the Friday after Thanksgiving as the town hosts a holiday parade and caroling in the downtown plaza. But Hammond said Small Business Saturday kept the momentum going. "There were people who came in specifically to use the Amex card." She more than doubled the total amount of her normal Amex sales — from $850 to $2000.

"My average sale is $24," said Hammond as she examined her Nov. 26 receipts. "My Amex average sale was $50. Wow! They were spending $25 more than they would have, and it bought them into my store."

That's because the extra $25 was paid for by American Express, who gave "hundreds of thousands" of cardholders $25 credits when they shopped in independent stores on Nov. 26. That amounted to a minimum of $5 million.

American Express ran a huge, expensive campaign, and it succeeded not just for Amex, but for small businesses. (I have no relation to Amex except to carry one of their cards, as well as Visa and Mastercards.) American Express ran commercials continually, focusing on the importance of shopping at small businesses with only a quiet mention of American Express at the end. They enlisted the support of more than 230 advocacy groups and 75 other corporations.

In my industry, there's been a movement — IndieBound — to support independent bookstores for years, but I bet you've never heard of it. It took Small Business Saturday to get shoppers — and the president — into independent bookstores.

"When you actually have a line of people waiting, it's weird," said Jeremy Kaplan of READ books in Los Angeles, quoted in Shelf Awareness. Other booksellers quoted echoed the success of the day: "It's been unreal today," said Gary Kolodzik of Frugal Frigate bookstore in Redlands, Calif. In Salt and Pepper Books in Occoquan, Va., owner Christine Myskowski, said, "More than half of the customers I've had today mentioned Small Business Saturday."

Small Business Saturday got consumers into small businesses, now we need to keep them coming back. I want Americans to rediscover the joy of shopping at small companies and the importance of keeping their dollars in their local communities.

If you have a small business, stay in touch with customers, remind them of how many of their dollars spent in small businesses stay in their own town, supporting their schools, police, fire department and creating community. And offer specials and unique merchandise or special services customers can't find in big box stores.

All of us — as we do the rest of our holiday shopping and entertaining — let's think first of small companies. Buy gifts at a local gift shop. Eat at local restaurants. Have coffee in a local coffee shop. Buy books at a real bookstore. Buy a toy at a small local toy store (if one still exists in your town).

And American Express: You've got 2.7 million fans, many of them small businesses. Promote them throughout the year. Take your success and turn it into a year-round commitment. Let's get the word out to make every day the day to Shop Small.

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop and publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her newest is the 5th edition of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies. Register for Rhonda's free newsletter at and "like" The Planning Shop on Facebook for updates. For an index of her columns, go to Twitter: Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2011.