ELKHART — When the recession hit five years ago, it walloped Joanie Smith hard.
She had to let a part-time employee go. She stopped paying herself.
But Smith, owner of The Picture Show, a gift shop at 1600 E. Bristol St., says she never considered quitting.
“It was very challenging,” she said. “The customers were so good. They wanted us to stay open and they came in, they made an effort. It was really cool.”
Smith is one of the thousands of small business owners nationally who are hoping for a sales boost Saturday, Nov. 30, from the fourth annual Small Business Saturday. It’s an effort, promoted by creditor American Express, to bolster support of locally owned businesses.
The day is wedged between Black Friday, dominated by big box stores, and Cyber Monday, the domain of online retailers. Competition from both has made survival increasingly difficult for many small businesses, Smith said.
Kyle Hannon, president/CEO of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, said he urged members to patronize locally owned businesses in his recent newsletter.
“It’s very important,” Hannon said. “More of each dollar you spend at a local establishment stays in this community and benefits this community.”
Nearly 70 percent of small businesses plan to offer special deals Saturday, according to a survey sponsored by American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business. American Express will credit cardholders’ accounts $10 if they spend at least $10 at participating stores.
Jon Weaver, co-owner of Martin’s Pet & Garden Center, 116 W. Jackson Blvd., planned to hand out cloth shopping bags to the first 25 shoppers. Although the store’s emphasis on lawn and garden items and pet supplies does not draw many Christmas shoppers early in the season, Weaver said he hopes the day will help raise awareness of what his small store offers year-round.
“We’re trying to get the word out about small business because the larger stores obviously have much larger advertising budgets than we do,” he said.
Weaver, who bought the store in 1985 after working there since high school in the 1960s, said he has plenty to offer.
“We know a lot of the people who come in here by name, we know about their animals,” Weaver said. “The personal connection, I think, is important, and making a shopping experience a good experience.”
“They can actually talk to people who know what they’re selling and are glad they are there,” she said. “We gift-wrap for free, help them with their choices. We can ask them the right questions and get them the right gift.”
Jim Robinson, owner of This N That, a variety store in the Concord Mall, said he has survived by offering unique “crafty” products that aren’t available at chain stores. He sells specialty NFL-licensed blankets, for example. If he doesn’t have a certain team that a customer wants, he will order it.
By contrast, big box stores typically only stock the highest-selling 20 or 30 items in a product line, Robinson said.
Although he lacks the advertising resources and bulk buying power of the big boxes, Weaver noted his small size gives him an advantage. He is more nimble, allowing him to respond faster to change. For example, often times larger stores will run out of de-icing material faster because he can more quickly restock it.
He also has needed to change along with society. When he realized fewer of his baby boomer customers were taking care of their own landscaping as they age, and therefore spending less on plants and supplies, he started providing a lawn fertilizing service.
“We keep adapting to the times,” Weaver said. “Hardly a day goes by where people don’t say, ‘Boy, don’t go out of business, we need you here.’”