Many central Kenai Peninsula small businesses owners said they’ve found they can’t directly compete with box stores or online retailers during the holiday shopping months and as a result, have taken up a particular strategy to stay alive.
In many cases, that’s why local retailers are putting their chips on Small Business Saturday — a day-long shopping event designed to compete with the likes of Black Friday, the nation’s busiest shopping day of the year, and Cyber Monday.
Small Business Saturday started three years ago to drive sales toward local businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving and has picked up steam thanks to corporate sponsor American Express.
Last year, 103 million Americans shopped at small businesses on that day, according to reports. Small businesses’ contribution to the national economy has been well documented — 44 percent of total U.S. payroll came from small businesses in 2011, according to the Small Business Administration. In Alaska, about 30 percent of all businesses across all industries and trades have fewer than 20 employees, according to the 2010 County Business Patterns collected by the U.S. Census.
Denise Thompson, owner of Susan’s Bath and Body Boutique, said last year was the first time her business promoted the day. The Soldotna gift store had cookies, hot chocolate and numerous sales culminating in a day she described as “a blast, actually.” Business was good, too, she said.
“It definitely beat Friday out of the water,” she said.
She was pleased to hear about other local businesses offering sales on that day and heightening awareness of the importance of small businesses in local economies, she said.
“I think we have our place,” Thompson said. “If you try to compete (with box stores or the Internet) you are not going to win. You are a completely different entity, you’re set up different and you are looking at customers different — you are looking more at them instead of just numbers.”
That personal experience, she said, includes getting “to chit-chat with someone, they will wrap your stuff nicely, you get great customer service, it is much more laid back, and here at least you get snacks, hot cocoa and Christmas music.”
Thompson said she also pushes American-made and Alaskan-made items, a sentiment shared by Sue Jordan, co-owner of Fireweed Herb Garden and Gifts in Kenai.
“We kind of pride ourselves on finding the Alaska-made gift and the American-made gift,” Jordan said.
Jordan said her business also had a great turnout on last year’s Small Business Saturday and said she will be offering a free small latte with purchase this year as a thanks to local shoppers.
“I think it supports the local economy and you have a lot of local employees that benefit from having the jobs at the small businesses here,” she said.
Thompson shared a similar sentiment — she employs three residents during Christmas, plus herself, all who challenge themselves to only shop local, she said.
Scott Miller, co-owner of Trustworthy Hardware, said he thinks the shopping holiday is a good idea because local businesses support the community in return, thus maintaining a sense of connection, he said.
“In today’s world, bigger and better seems to be the trend and it has been for a long period of time, but we do feel there is a place for small, local businesses to stabilize the local economy,” he said. “Big guys come and go and even in our community we’ve seen them come and go, but the little small guys are still here.”
In that aspect, business has changed — to keep the same amount of traffic through the door, Miller said Trustworthy has had to sell different items, pick and choose their deals and after days like Black Friday, when the spotlight naturally hits the big stores, be ready to meet shoppers with good prices.
“You certainly have to be priced right,” he said. “You can’t just depend on that we are the good old hardware store in town — nobody is going to come.”
Tammy Davis, owner of Chez Moi Boutique, an upscale clothing store in Soldotna, said she would like to see local business work together more on a day like Small Business Saturday to strengthen the message and send shoppers from store to store.
“People shopping anywhere is good for everyone,” she said. “... The money trickles down the street, which I really like. But they kind of have to have an excuse to hit all of these shops at the same time. Otherwise they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’m tired, I think I’ll go home and maybe shop again next Saturday.’”
Davis said she offered her big holiday sale early last Sunday and Monday this year to see if it would help with sales and because Saturdays are normally high-traffic days regardless.
Mike Sweeney of Sweeney’s Clothing in Soldotna is also diverging from just the Small Business Saturday theme and offering sales on Friday, Saturday and “last minute Sunday” as many of the people who would buy the work clothes he sells also work on Friday.
“I think in a community like ours it just fits in really well,” he said of Small Business Saturday. “There’s a lot of small businesses in this town.”
Sweeney agreed that competing against larger retailers and the Internet this time of year is tough, but he said he and other local merchants rely on selection and quantity to attract customers.
“I think this Christmas season is going to be a very good one. I think there are more jobs on the Peninsula and there’s hard times, no doubt, for most people,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s really easy — we’ve worked hard to have a successful year. I think by having quality and selection, we are going to do just fine.”
Kathy Slone, co-manager Dan’s TV and Appliance in Kenai, said national attention brought on by Black Friday and Small Business Saturday has spilled over to her business resulting in increased foot traffic on those days over the years.
“We see lots of people at 8 a.m. and it is not even something that we advertise heavily,” she said. “People are just driving by, see our lights on and come in, which is funny.”
Slone agreed with Sweeney — selection is key. Dan’s TV also promotes its service and repairs and employing “local people that have knowledge and care,” about what they sell, she said.
“Obviously we connect more with Small Business Saturday than we do Black Friday, though we are doing Black Friday stuff too,” she said. “But being in small business for many years, it is near and dear to my heart. That’s what it is all about.
“It is the one day a year where we are noticed. Hopefully we are noticed.”
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.