Even hard-core shoppers might not know the Saturday after Thanksgiving has an official retail-related name.
But scores of independent merchants in the Baltimore area did their part Saturday to get the "Shop Small" message out for the fourth annual Small Business Saturday. American Express launched the initiative four years ago to help small shops compete with national chains and online sellers during the traditional kickoff weekend to the holiday retail season.
With most of the Black Friday traffic going to the malls and big store brands, small merchants say they hope to carve out a larger share of consumer spending on the post-Thanksgiving Saturday. It's become increasingly difficult to compete with the deep discounts that consumers have come to demand from the big box stores and national chains, small merchants said.
The idea, shop owners, said is to remind consumers that "Mom and Pop" stores offer an alternative, along with more unique offerings and a heavy dose of personal service.
"The clothing lines I sell are not sold in department stores," said Cathy M. Sidlowski, owner of Freesia women's apparel boutique in Fells Point, which was offering 20 percent discounts. Small Business Saturday, she said, is helping to build "awareness that shopping doesn't have to be done in the mall. … It can be done locally. People have other choices."
Freesia was one of 15 businesses that joined an effort organized by aMuse Toys owner Claudia Towles to encourage shoppers to explore the waterfront neighborhood's shops. Shoppers who made a purchase at a participating store were given a "passport" they could get stamped during visits to other participating stores, such as Cupcake, Poppy & Stella's and Zelda Zen. Shoppers who visited five or more retailers were entered in sweepstakes to win store and restaurant gift cards.
Promotions were also offered in Baltimore's Pigtown neighborhood, where merchants gave tours of their businesses. In Anne Arundel County, shoppers who patronized independent shops could win prizes in a drawing if they posted photos of themselves in the stores on Twitter or Facebook.
Last year, consumers spent $5.5 billion at small businesses on Small Business Saturday, according to American Express. This year, 70 percent of the small businesses that planned to incorporate the day into their promotions said they expected it to attract new customers, according to a November survey by American Express and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
On Saturday in Fells Point, businesses welcomed customers with "Shop Small" door mats and blue and white balloons, while shoppers strolled along Broadway and Thames Street carrying white "Shop Small" tote bags.
By late morning, Towles had already given away 200 of the passports to shoppers who'd made purchases. As her shop filled up, she was busy recommending toys and games and stamping passports.
"The whole point is for people to rediscover 'Main Street,'" Towles said. "We're selling an experience."
Colleen Harner of Essex, who works in medical sales, said she was shopping at aMuse and other small shops Saturday because "it's important to support small businesses."
She became a repeat customer at the toy store after the shop owners helped her select appropriate toys for her daughter, she said.
"The level of customer service is incomparable," she said. "You would never get that at the big chain retailers."
At Green Spring Station in Lutherville, one of the area's biggest collections of independently owned boutiques, Wee Chic children's shop was offering a "buy-two-items-get-one-free" promotion. Customer Nancy Cornelius, who was with her husband buying dresses for their granddaughters, was glad to hear about the promotion, but confessed she would have driven all the way from Clarksville, in Howard County, even without a sale.
"I love their selection for girls," said Cornelius, a middle school math teacher. "They have different clothes here you can't find anywhere."
Saturday's "small" designation has helped focus attention on the locally owned businesses that fill a niche while helping to drive the local economy, said Sima Blue, owner of Trillium, also in Green Spring Station, a boutique specializing in exclusive dress labels, sweaters and jewelry. Despite growing competition from e-commerce and big retailers, small businesses work hard to offer personal service that builds customer loyalty, Blue said.
"Everything here is hand-picked," she said. "We create one-on-one relationships, and we buy for our customers."
Nancy Gimbel, who was buying a jacket in the boutique, said she stops in when she's in the Baltimore area, even though she now lives in Phoenix, Ariz.
When she's visiting, "I always come here," Gimbel said. "It's easier shopping, and they have things that are a little different from the department stores."
Kristen George, a Maryland Shock Trauma Center nurse, said she and her sister decided to hit the shops in Fells Point, where she also lives, after hearing about the small business promotions.
"We bought something in every store we went into," said George, opening a bag with soaps, chocolates and other items. "We bought a lot more than we thought."