Small businesses across Rhode Island are getting a boost from the push to shop local this holiday season. Owners of small shops can’t predict whether unique products and personal attention will peel a substantial number of shoppers away from big-box discounts. But looking at the first leap into holiday shopping, many small-business owners and chamber of commerce executives point to early enthusiasm as a promising sign.
“The Saturday ‘Shop Local’ was absolutely fabulous. It was a blowout,” said Carol Pratt, owner of Carol’s Country Corner, an 1,800-square-foot general store-type shop in Apponaug Village in Warwick. “It was the most profitable day I’ve had over a Black Friday weekend in 18 years.”
Pratt didn’t do anything unusual. She just used her email customer list. In addition to her regulars, she had plenty of new customers. She attributes some of the crowd to an incentive by American Express, the company that created Small Business Saturday three years ago. Customers told Pratt if they registered online and spent $25 shopping local on Small Business Saturday, they’d get a $25 credit on their American Express account.
“I had a quite a few people coming in and telling me, ‘I had to come in today because it’s shop-local day,’ ” said Pratt, whose customers bagged items ranging from reproductions of Colonial furniture, to soap made with crushed fir needles from Exeter to mixes for clam cakes and chowder.
“People seem to be freer with their money in the last month, since the election,” said Pratt. “I think they‘ve just got to have the holiday, and I’m glad they’re buying small and local.”
A similar influx of shoppers reporting they were prompted by the $25 American Express credit showed up on Small Business Saturday at What Cheer? Antiques & Vintage on Thayer Street in Providence.
“It was a good way of to kick off the season and remind people we’re here,” said owner Chris Daltry. What Cheer? has developed a specialty in vinyl records, and Daltry said some shoppers liked a companion product – a reproduction of a 1950s suitcase-style record player that costs about $100.
“Small Business Saturday was equal to one of our better Saturdays. It’s good to see that, with a lot of competition from big-box stores,” Daltry said. “We’re optimistic that the rest of the season will be good.”
To keep up shopper interest, What Cheer? is planning a December in-store celebration to mark 13 years in business. Small-business owners across Rhode Island are pumping up their special-events schedule to attract customers throughout the holiday season.
“We’re following Small Business Saturday and our tree lighting with our Holiday Strolls,” said Steve Lombardi, executive director of the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce. Each Thursday-evening stroll has a theme, from cookie madness to a window-display contest.
“We got off to a good start with Small Business Saturday and we’re cautiously optimistic,” Lombardi said. “The difference this year is the merchants and the Chamber are working in much closer cooperation, so the promotion for the strolls has increased.”
The positive economic impact of strolling showed up on Westminster Street in Providence, where Elizabeth DeRose of Mansfield, Mass., arrived on Black Friday with her daughter and sister. They had seen mentions of the Craftland shop in “Better Homes and Gardens” and “Martha Stewart Living” magazines. Before they found Craftland, they found Modern Love, stopped in and bought a dress for a holiday party.
“We came to Providence for an adventure,” said DeRose. “We’ve been shopping on Thayer Street before, but this is the first time we’ve come to this part of Providence.”
[Art is] a big part of the offerings at Modern Love and the adjoining Queen of Hearts. Owner Karen Beebe stocks the work of 60 artists, in addition to bath and body products, shoes, clothing and jewelry.
“I can’t afford to give big discounts as a small business,” said Beebe, who does about 25 percent of her annual sales during the holidays. “We pride ourselves on customer service, and we want customers to have a pleasant shopping experience.”
Rhode Island Retail Federation Director Paul DeRoche said small businesses continue to compete for a larger share of holiday dollars.
“I don’t think Shop Local was as big as shopping at the big-box stores, but I do think small businesses saw some increase in sales,” DeRoche said.
The National Retail Federation is predicting about a 4 percent increase over last year in holiday sales nationwide.
“I don’t think we’ll be as robust as the national sales, but I do think we’ll do very well, in spite of our poor economy,” said DeRoche. “In Rhode Island, I think we might have a 3 percent or 4 percent increase over last year for the big-box stores and the small stores combined. People seem to be in a good spending mood.”
Business leaders are seeing that good spending mood in early shopping across the state.
Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce President John Gregory shopped at 10 locations, in Woonsocket, North Smithfield, Cumberland and Lincoln, on Small Business Saturday. With that kick-off weekend as an indication, Gregory said the season looks “robust.”
“From the florist to the restaurant to the hardware store and gift shop, they all said they had a really good Friday and Saturday,” said Gregory.
At the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, Executive Director Jody Sullivan said checking in with small businesses, she found all had a good Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, or both.
“There’s some momentum. I think people have been saving and they’re beginning to be more optimistic,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s going to be a good season.” •