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Saturday boosts small business

Last Saturday, hundreds of small business owners in Maryland arrived at the shops where they earn their livelihoods — clothing boutiques, ice cream parlors, craft stores — to set up for the day. Then they waited.

Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association and owner of Atomic Books on Falls Road, says his store saw a 32 percent increase in sales on Small Business Saturday compared to a year ago.

There were no lines of shoppers camped out in tents. There were no stampedes fighting for door-buster deals.

But on the morning after Black Friday, most local merchants didn’t have to wait long to see whether the national Small Business Saturday campaign would live up to the high expectations many had set for the three-year-old event.

“I don’t know of anyone who didn’t do well,” said Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association and owner of Atomic Books on Falls Road.

Hampden’s merchants aren’t unique. Small retailers from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore said they greeted more customers and enjoyed measurably higher sales on Saturday than they did on the same day last year.

Small Business Saturday — the nationwide campaign to dedicate the Saturday after Thanksgiving to shopping locally — was a success, they said.

“Most of the businesses that I talked to had, at the very least, a very good Saturday,” Ray said. “A number of them had a better Saturday than they did for Small Business Saturday last year, and a handful of them had a record sales day [for the Saturday after Thanksgiving].”

Since 2010, when American Express hatched the idea, it has been steadily gaining traction. After two years of modest success, the event has begun to deliver the envisioned results, several business owners said.

Atomic Books saw a 25 percent increase in sales on Friday compared to 2011, and a 32 percent increase on Saturday, Ray said. At Annebeth’s, a specialty food and gift shop in Annapolis, owner Annebeth Bunker said she saw about a 5 percent increase in sales over last year.

Several merchants said they think consumer attitudes are evolving, as people become more receptive to the idea of patronizing local businesses, even if the prices aren’t as cheap.

“I think there is definitely a mindset shift,” Bunker said, “when you think of all the restaurants out there promoting the local farm-to-table idea, with local distributors. It’s evident there. And just as far as supporting your local small businesses, I think that’s really starting to take hold.”

This year, business owners said more people seemed to know about the idea than in the past. Earlier last week, many Marylanders said they hadn’t heard of the promotion, but public awareness seemed to increase each day leading up to Saturday, especially over the weekend, several people said.

“People are becoming increasingly aware,” Ray said. “The first year, nobody even knew it existed. The second year, a handful knew about it. And this year, it seemed like a lot of people knew.”

According to national survey results and observations by local retailers, that increased awareness translated to more dollars for small businesses this season. It demonstrates the success of the marketing push and reveals consumer approval of the concept, they said.

“The fact that they’re aware of [the event] suggests to me that they’re also aware of the benefits of shopping locally,” Ray said.

“The responses of people who came through seemed to indicate that [the marketing efforts] are working, that actually people are becoming more and more educated about the best ways to spend their money, and that that doesn’t always mean getting the lowest price,” he continued.

In some areas, however, even the most earnest marketing effort wasn’t an automatic recipe for success.

Pigtown Main Street, a neighborhood association in Baltimore, hosted the city’s only Small Business Saturday celebration. Executive Director Ben Hyman said last week his goal was to invigorate Pigtown’s sluggish business corridor by attracting people with live music, free gift-wrapping and other activities on Saturday.

Merchants there put up the same banners and laid down the same welcome maps as others in the state, but it wasn’t enough, said Dede Kassa, who owns Jovial Café on Washington Boulevard.

Kassa said turnout at the event was disappointing and she didn’t think many people actually shopped at local businesses in Pigtown. But, she added, that doesn’t mean Small Business Saturday wasn’t a success — for her business, and for the neighborhood.

Pigtown residents worked hard to re-energize the local economy and made progress toward that goal, she said, by building a following for local businesses.

“This is the first year,” she said. “Ben [Hyman] did a lot of work, and so next year will be even better because we learned a lesson — what we have to do, how much we have to advertise ahead of time. I’m sure that will make a big difference.”

For the most part, however, Marylanders’ experiences appeared to reflect the national results.

U.S. consumers spent $5.5 billion at small businesses on Saturday, according to a survey conducted by American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business, which topped earlier estimates of $5.3 billion ,

Success was also largely due to heavy marketing and outreach efforts by American Express and other sponsors, according to several retailers who said promotional materials provided by the companies allowed them to advertise more effectively than they could on their own.

American Express coordinated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which doled out materials to the first 50 local chambers that expressed interest, said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the credit card company.

Among those local bureaus was the Annapolis Business Association, which organized a city-wide recognition of Small Business Saturday. Officials distributed banners, welcome floor mats and other themed merchandise to store owners.

The ABA also handed out $25 American Express gift cards to 200 shoppers who showed receipts from three Annapolis small businesses that day, and encouraged individual owners to offer their own promotions.

Dozens did so — such as offering free gifts with a purchase or additional discounts. Bunker said she thought all the extra offers made a huge difference in attracting shoppers.

Many said they’re optimistic that Small Business Saturday will become a permanent fixture on the holiday shopping scene, though they weren’t sure how to ensure that happens. Bunker said even more exposure would be necessary, and that American Express should continue sponsoring the campaign through funding and resources.

Without that support, she said, Small Business Saturday might not be able to sustain itself — at least yet.

But continued support is far from a guarantee. Krugman of American Express said he isn’t sure what the company’s plans are for next year, and he couldn’t speculate about its role in future years.