As the holidays approach, people begin to think not only about what gifts they’ll buy for loved ones, but where they’ll purchase these items. Black Friday continues to attract crowds to malls and large retailers, while shoppers flock online for deals on Cyber Monday.
Sandwiched between these two events is Small Business Saturday, which encourages people to visit the small shops in their own community. First launched by American Express in 2010, the event has since become a launching point for local incentives to support local holiday shopping.
This is the second year of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut’s Holiday Shopping Trail, which starts on Small Business Saturday on Nov. 30 and runs through Christmas Eve. Shoppers receive a passport featuring local businesses and collect a sticker when they visit a participating establishment. They can then turn in the completed passport to be entered in a drawing for various rewards, including a grand prize of round-trip airfare for two to Ireland from Aer Lingus.
“Shopping local is good for the community. Small businesses employ almost half the workforce,” says Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. “These are our friends and neighbors. They pay property taxes, and they regularly donate to our schools, police, fire departments, and local charities.”
Kristin Havrilla Clarke, director of New London Main Street, says many communities pair Small Business Saturday with other holiday celebrations. New London hosts its annual tree lighting along with attractions such as carol singing, children’s events, and a visit from Santa Claus.
Clarke says that after realizing that many retailers stayed late on Thursdays, New London Main Street encouraged them to keep their doors open on that day for later shopping hours in December. The organization also uses its social media to promote local businesses and their unique gift options.
“They strive to be the best at what they do,” says Clarke. “They help people find the perfect items, they order items, and a lot of them are really savvy about what their customers are looking for.”
In East Lyme, the Niantic Holiday Stroll takes place on Small Business Saturday. Rita Rivera, communications director for Niantic Main Street, says the event encourages creative ways for people to explore downtown, such as decorative storefronts and scavenger hunts.
“It’s not just that you’re going to buy something, you’re going to buy something and support the community while you do it,” says Rivera. “You’re helping the mom and pop shop stay open. And the more you shop downtown the more the community prospers.”
Olde Mistick Village, which includes 40 independently owned shops, holds some of its most popular events around the holidays. Its Holiday Carnival will take place on Dec. 7, while the Festival of Lights on Dec. 13 will line the paths of the village with about 6,000 candles and festoon its buildings with some 300,000 Christmas lights. Chris Regan, property manager at Olde Mistick Village, says many visitors have come to the village’s events as a family tradition.
“It gives it a sense of place,” he says. “And that’s how most successful shopping is happening now is a sense of place.”
Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce in Westerly, says this year’s Small Business Saturday will include the debut of a popup book focusing on local landmarks. She said about 1,500 copies have been pre-ordered through the chamber, and the launch at Savoy Bookshop and Café will give people a chance to meet the illustrator.
“It’s a very personal, intimate, as ultra-local as you can get publication,” says Konicki. “And that experience producing it really created a lot of pride in our community.”
The holidays have also prompted strong interest in local incentives. Konicki says the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce sold about $60,000 in local gift certificates last year in December alone. The Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce has launched a Go Local program, featuring a gift card which can be loaded with funds at the chamber office and redeemed at several local merchants. The Old Saybrook Chamber of Commerce will be introducing Peppermint Perks, offering $5 off purchases of $25 or more at participating local businesses.
Gail Desrosier, owner of the Eagle’s Nest Gallery in Westerly, says there has been increased support for local small businesses since she opened the gift shop in 2006. She says she has a rewards program for frequent customers, as well as services such as gift wrapping and discounts for military members. She says many customers have also complimented her on how the store’s selection helps with their holiday shopping.
“They can shop for everybody here,” says Desrosier. “We just have a variety of items where if you need a unique gift for someone, we’ve got it.”
Pamela Stone, owner of the fine art gallery and luxury goods store Curated in Mystic, also said her customers have been happy with the unique selection of goods at her business. She says shoppers receive individualized attention and, around the holidays, can enjoy complimentary prosecco.
"I would much prefer to shop in that kind of environment than in any big department store,” says Stone.
Dakota Gates, a bookseller at Bank Square Books in Mystic, said customers have a better ability to directly interact with employees and find a fitting gift at a small business. Rich Martin, who opened the New London record store The Telegraph in 2010, says he and his employees strive to be as knowledgeable as possible about the music scene in order to serve their customers.
“We’ve helped hundreds of people find specific items that they weren’t sure they would be able to find,” he says.
Martin says he has seen a general shift of people looking to get back into downtown stores for their holiday shopping. Kathleen Poulin, of Northern Light Gems in New London, says customers also enjoy the convenience and ability to see products in person.
“It’s not like looking at a picture online. A lot of people want to touch it and try it on,” she says.
Many customers have taken to supporting small businesses as a way of keeping downtown areas vibrant and supporting the local economy. Lexi Persi, who opened the home décor and gift boutique Azalea in Niantic, says the effect on the economy is further multiplied because she provides a venue for local artisans to sell their goods.
“I think it’s really special to support people who are going after their dreams and doing what they love for their life,” she says. “In a small shop like mine you’re going to see a lot of unique things, things you can’t find anywhere else, that are going to be really special for the person you’re buying for.”