Come for the free cookies, stay for the shopping

Expect free cookies, loyalty rewards and holiday cheer this Small Business Saturday. But maybe not deep discounts.

For small business owners, surviving the last few years of lockdown, empty stores and supply chain bottlenecks has not been an easy task.

Now there’s another beast rearing its head: inflation.

“Our spending has skyrocketed,” said Tina Miller, owner of Walkabout Outfitter, a family-owned Virginia chain that sells outdoor gear.

That mostly affects payroll, Miller said, but she also expects the cost of her inventory to increase significantly.

Additionally, Miller feels pressure to keep their prices low. She says sales have flattened compared to last year.

Miller is hoping things get better this weekend for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. But she worries.

“Will people hold back? Will they just choose fewer things? I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” Miller said.

“I try to be very optimistic.”

Small Business Saturday: A Genesis Story

Small Business Saturday is a relatively new concept. It was launched by American Express in 2010 to draw attention and customers to small businesses after the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

According to a report by American Express, about $0.68 of every dollar spent in small businesses stays in the local community.

And in 2011, the Senate passed a resolution recognizing the day to encourage people to shop local.

Free cookies instead of sales

With costs rising and profit margins razor-thin, many small businesses just can’t afford the massive markdowns and sales that big retailers are throwing this weekend, so they’re using other things to entice shoppers.

NPR has been tracking the health of several small businesses since the pandemic began, and we reached out to three to hear what they’re expecting this shopping season.

Miller, the owner of Walkabout Outfitter, almost went bankrupt in 2020. To survive, she also opened an online shop.

Many of her customers, mostly 40- to 50-year-old women, now prefer to shop online, Miller said, but their brick-and-mortar stores are still critical to their business.

Miller is hoping the in-person experience will lure customers to her store this weekend, as she doesn’t plan on selling much.

The benefits of IRL shopping? Free cookies and coffee.

Miller said what makes this weekend special isn’t the prizes anyway, it’s the atmosphere.

“I see all the people that I might not see all year long,” Miller said. “It’s usually busy and busy and fun and people are in high spirits.”

Giving in a holiday mood

Juby George founded Smell the Curry – an Indian takeaway restaurant and catering company – last December after working as a programmer for more than 20 years.

Inflation has pushed up the prices of ingredients – everything from meat to vegetables is now more expensive. But George isn’t ready to put that burden on his customers. Instead, he’s trying to revamp the menu to keep prices consistent.

George is offering discounted meals to those in need this holiday season. He also gives leftover food to a local charity. “I don’t lose anything,” said George.

Count on loyalty

Patti Riordan is the owner of The Smoke Stack Hobby Shop in Lancaster, Ohio, which sells model trains and craft supplies.

She’s doing what she always did on Small Business Saturday: Riordan has a loyalty program for her customers, and they’ll double those rewards if they shop that weekend.

Riordan is delighted to present a new train collection that her store acquired after a story about the store aired on NPR in August.

Sales at The Smoke Stack have slowed in recent months. But Riordan is hopeful for this weekend. She sees it as an indicator of how sales will look for the rest of the year.

“If it’s really strong then to me that says the next four weeks are going to be strong. If it’s soft, then we’ll put on our thinking caps.”