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Small businesses — like those in Sewickley — bank on Saturday's sales

| Monday, Nov. 21, 2016, 6:09 p.m.

Black Friday may be the shopping bonanza that saves the balance sheet for big retailers, but for the past six years, smaller retailers have relied on Small Business Saturday to kick off the holiday season.

Susan Hans O'Connor, owner of Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, said Small Business Saturday has been a boon for her independent book store. “If not the biggest day of the year then one of the biggest,” O'Connor said. “Definitely bigger than Black Friday.”

Small Business Saturday started out as a marketing gimmick for American Express, which sought to improve its standing with small business customers angered by the company's card processing fees. The secondary intent was to help small retailers still reeling from the 2009 recession.

The day became official in 2011 when the Senate unanimously passed a resolution of support. There are now 28 million small businesses in the United States, a number that has increased by 49 percent since 1982, according to the federal Small Business Administration.

Small businesses account for 54 percent of all sales in the U.S., the administration said.

Money spent on Small Business Saturday does not come close to what is spent the day before on Black Friday — the busiest shopping day of the year that big box and larger retailers tend to dominate.

But the small-business day is expected to generate around $17.8 billion for small businesses, experts said.

Gayle J. Marco, professor of marketing at Robert Morris University, said while Small Business Saturday is a good tool for raising awareness, a big issue for small businesses during the holiday shopping season is the emphasis on holiday deals.

“It's been so built up in people's minds to look for specials, and you don't always see deals at small businesses,” she said, especially on Black Friday. Unlike their big box counterparts, small businesses can't always afford to mark down their merchandise, because their profit margins are already thinner.

Small businesses might be better off emphasizing their uniqueness and the personalized service they can offer customers, Marco said. A dress shop might offer custom tailoring, for instance, or a coffee shop may provide a local variety not found at chain coffee stores.

“They need people to come in, stay a while and buy. Foot traffic is nice, but that doesn't always equal sales,” Marco said.

O'Connor said while deal seekers used to be more common at Penguin Bookshop when Small Business Saturday started, that has changed in the past few years.

“It's come to the point where there's been so much increased awareness of the value of shopping locally, that it's not just about getting the best deal,” she said. “Before the whole ‘shop local' movement, you'd get people who would come in and say, ‘Well I can get that same thing cheaper online.' We don't see that as much anymore.”

Suzanne Elliott and Kim Lyons are Tribune-Review contributing writers.

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