In just seven years, shopping "small" on the Saturday after Thanksgiving has become nearly as ingrained in the American psyche as heading to the chain stores or mall for Black Friday sales.
"Small Business Saturday," which celebrates mom-and-pop shops, restaurants and services, has picked up steam since it made a nationwide splash in 2010 after being launched by American Express.
It has evolved into the biggest single day for sales in the holiday season for some independent businesses, and one of the biggest days for others. Increased shopper traffic — much of it generated by publicity from the giant credit card issuer and by community and business associations — pays off in other ways too. It attracts new customers who otherwise wouldn't think to patronize smaller shops and reminds residents about locally owned shops in their own backyards.
"Because Black Friday is so focused on big-box stores and crazy deals and is a totally different shopping experience, it's nice to have a more local, small-minded day that has the same spirit to it," said Kohli Flick, owner of home furnishings store Becket Hitch. "I feel like the spirit is different in the sense that Black Friday is all about deals and quantity over quality, where this is more about community and holiday cheer and kicking off the season. I feel like it's a different vibe."
Business that Saturday has grown each year, said Flick, who opened the shop two and a half years ago at Greenspring Station in Lutherville.
American Express launched Small Business Saturday to fill a void for small businesses that were sometimes overlooked in the frenzy of holiday shopping. Within a month after the launch, it had attracted more than 1 million likes on Facebook.
Now, thousands of businesses participate, and last year more than 4,100 groups or businesses signed on to be organizers of events involving at least 10 businesses. On Nov. 28 last year, some 95 million people shopped at small businesses and spent $16.2 billion at those establishments, American Express said.
"Every year we have seen growth in terms of consumer awareness as well as consumer dollars spent, as well as participating businesses," said Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, a spokeswoman for Small Business Saturday for American Express, "That tells us that small businesses are leveraging the message that Small Business Saturday offers to encourage consumers to shop small, and it also tells us that consumers are aware of Small Business Saturday and want to support small businesses."
The share of consumers who are aware of the day reached a high of 58 percent this year, according to a survey released Thursday by the National Federation of Independent Business and American Express. Of the consumers who plan to shop locally that day, more than six in 10 will do so because "they value the contribution small businesses make to their community," the survey found.
Most — 89 percent — of those who know about the holiday said it encourages them to "shop small" year-round. Two thirds said they plan to spend at least $100.
East Baltimore's Highlandtown, which has organized Small Business Saturday events for three years, will kick off the day with a morning breakfast at Hoehn's Bakery, where shoppers can sample pastries and coffee from High Grounds and pick up American Express tote bags before setting off on a "challenge" to visit at least five Highlandtown shops to qualify to enter a raffle.
The owner of Rust-n-Shine, a vintage home furnishings shop that opened just over a year ago on South Conkling Street, plans a sidewalk sale in hopes of encouraging residents and visitors to browse and just hang out.
"Last year we had a couple of really great weekends, and Small Business Saturday was one of them," one of the top five days in the November to December period, said Kevin Bernhard, owner of Rust-n-Shine, which is growing and plans to move next year to a larger space in a building nearby on South Conkling Street. "This is really the only holiday we have that we're celebrating the small business aspect."
"It's just a gentle reminder," he added, to support community businesses that make neighborhoods better places to live.
Last year Highlandtown Main Street tracked shoppers on Small Business Saturday and found 200 unique visits to 30 different neighborhood businesses, said Amanda Smit-Peters, manager of the Main Street program. Several city Main Street programs are organizing events for the day in places such as Fells Point, Pigtown and Federal Hill.
"One of our goals is for people to explore new businesses that they haven't been to before," Smit-Peters said. "It's partly about awareness, about knowing what are the businesses in your community that you can shop in. For small businesses, it really is our kickoff to the holidays.
"The owners are there, and you can talk to them in the store," she said. "They want to build relationships with customers and want to provide great services and products for the community."
Small Business Saturday events are planned across the region wherever there are clusters of locally-owned shops from Annapolis, Bel Air and Catonsville to Westminster.
Cathy Sidlowski, owner of Freesia, a women's apparel shop in Fells Point, said the boost is needed after a year of business disruption caused by construction projects in the neighborhood. The merchant plans to offer 20 percent off everything in the store, even items she rarely discounts.
"People's awareness of the day is growing with every year," Sidlowski said. "Last year it was financially the best day I had all year. What I like about it is seeing a lot of familiar faces, people who live in walking distance or Federal Hill or Canton. People are specifically coming to shop in Fells Point."
The day has added meaning this year for businesses in historic Ellicott City that suffered losses in the devastating late July flash flood that destroyed businesses and killed two people.
Small Business Saturday had begun to surpass the district's Midnight Madness event held each first Friday in December as the biggest day of the year, said Kelly Zimmerman, marketing director of the Ellicott City Partnership.
This year, the town will hold a Main Street re-opening event on the small business day, with T-shirt giveaways and shuttles taking shoppers to and from the district.
More than 70 percent of the district's flood damaged businesses will have reopened, Zimmerman said. A farmers market in the parking lot of the Wine Bin will host retailers whose stores are not ready for occupancy.
"Small Business Saturday is going to be crucial to our town this year," Zimmerman said. "We're hoping it will be the biggest one yet. We're hoping folks remember us and come shop with us and come see our recovery."
Shoemaker Country, which lost its 8,000-square-foot space in the flood, was working on re-opening last week in a temporary, pop-up shop on Main Street, said John Shoemaker, who, along with his brother, runs the shop his parents have owned on Main Street for 15 years. The business, which designs and builds furniture, hopes to move back into the original location early next year, he said.
"In the past [Small Business Saturday] has definitely been a big day," Shoemaker said. "We'll have to see what happens this year. Small Business Saturday had started to take off and people were happy to support [it.] It's a nice answer to the madness of Black Friday shopping.
"It's going to mean lot to us," he said, "especially this town as we try to rebuild."