Small Business Saturday more critical for local shops this holiday season amid COVID-19 pandemic

Charisse Jones and Kelly Tyko USA TODAY
promote their local support.
Bobby Kelley, who owns Bobby K boutique in Jacksonville, Florida, is one of the thousands of small business owners forced to pivot his business model because of the pandemic. Bob Self/Florida Times-Union

It's the 11th annual Small Business Saturday, which falls between Black Friday and Cyber Monday and serves as the kickoff to the holiday season for independent retailers and restaurateurs.

But this year is more urgent than most, with many small businesses struggling to survive amid the coronavirus pandemic that led to widespread shutdowns in the spring and now is  spurring lawmakers to impose new restrictions as the virus flares again throughout the country.

"With COVID spikes across the country and cold weather coming on, the holiday gift season may be the only thing that gets some industries through until the spring,'' says Sarah Crozier, spokeswoman for the Main Street Alliance. "Even if retail businesses see a fairly normal holiday season, it will not make up for the major revenue dips from the early part of the year.''

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A  study by American Express, which created Small Business Saturday, found that 64% of business owners felt that this year the day is more important than ever. In 2019, roughly 110 million people participated, spending an estimated $19.6 billion, a record high, says Andy Goldberg, American Express's senior vice president, global brand management and planning.

"We are encouraging people to show up in whatever way they can on Small Business Saturday and all holiday season long,'' Goldberg said. 

Some small businesses have adapted, sprucing up their websites, displaying their products on social media and mirroring their big chain peers by offering options like curbside pick up. 

A more intimate, personalized experience may also draw in shoppers wary of malls and crowds in the midst of a global health crisis.

Bobby Kelley, who owns Bobby K boutique in Jacksonville, Florida, is one of the thousands of small business owners forced to pivot his business model because of the pandemic.

"The reality is that a lot of businesses are hurting, trying to retain staff and pay them and stay active in the community," Kelley told the Florida Times-Union, part of the USA TODAY Network. "The grants and programs put in place to keep us afloat did not go far." 

According to a Google survey, 66% of shoppers say they plan to shop more at small businesses. And the American Express study found that 88% of shoppers said they feel an obligation to support local businesses because of the difficulties many have endured during the pandemic.

But a survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers forecast a sharp dip, with 59% of Thanksgiving weekend shoppers planning to shop Saturday compared to 73% in 2019. 

With financial relief for Americans who lost work during the pandemic coming to an end, and no replacement by Congress in sight, many may cut back on their spending, Crozier says.

"I think people want to support their local small businesses as much as they can if they have the means,'' she says. "The question is whether consumer spending will be enough to get (small businesses) through the winter.''

Ultimately, Crozier says, it will take a multipronged effort to give small businesses and their potential shoppers the boost they need.

"Customers should know they can do more than just support with their purchases,'' she says. "They can also reach out to their representatives so that Congress passes more COVID relief, both for the small businesses but also for the consumers who are pulling back their spending this year."

For Chris Gerbman, who owns and operates the Country Gourmet gift shop in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with his wife, Karen, “every Saturday should be Small Business Saturday.”

“Everybody heads to a big box store, where they can buy cheaper and sell for less because of the number of stores (the corporations) own,"  Chris Gerbman told the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network. "But we can buy more unique things and that’s what we try to do – sell things that you can’t find anywhere else."

Contributing: Emily Bloch, Florida Times-Union and Nancy DeGennaro, Murfreesboro Daily News Journal

Follow USA TODAY reporters Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko and Charisse Jones @charissejones 

Chris Gerbman points out some of the items for sale at The Country Gourmet on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, in Murfreesboro. Helen Comer/ The Daily News Journal