Small businesses are in holiday-sales game

Small businesses, locally owned and operated, have been fighting to keep their place amid growing pressure from online sales.

Two weeks into the traditional holiday shopping season, some have reported better-than-expected results.

“We had a record November,” said Karen Beebe, owner of Queen of Hearts in downtown Providence. Open 11 years, she said the business, which features a mix of home décor, accessories, gifts and clothing, is primarily driven by tourist spending, as well as downtown dwellers.

Other than welcomed mild weather, she’s not sure why the holiday shopping season has started so strongly.

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“In retail, you’re literally playing the lottery every day,” she said.

The National Retail Federation predicted that overall holiday sales would increase between 3.6 percent and 4 percent this year, with shoppers buoyed by an improving economy.

Promotion of Rhode Island-based retailers and shopping opportunities is spearheaded by the Rhode Island Foundation through its Buy Local RI campaign. Relaunched in 2014 with a new logo – featuring a cartoon chicken with an anchor tattoo on his wing – the campaign includes links to local festivals, markets and other activities.

It’s a year-round effort but takes on special significance around the holidays, said Jessica David, the foundation’s senior vice president for strategy and community investment.

A study conducted in 2014 for the foundation by the research firm Civic Economics found that if consumers in Rhode Island shifted 10 percent of their purchases from chains to independent and locally owned stores, more than $300 million could be added to the state economy, according to the foundation.

The study also estimated that 57 percent of consumer spending with local retailers stays in the local economy, compared to 14 percent of spending at national chains in Rhode Island.

Local retailers have felt pressure from competing online sales and chain stores. Sometimes it comes in the form of shoppers who enter their stores to look around, and price items or try them on, but who then go on to purchase online, David said.

“But at the same time, we also hear from local businesses that … have customers who come in specifically because they want … that face-to-face experience,” she said.

One retailer who can attest to David’s point is Jan Faust Dane, owner of Stock Culinary Goods on Hope Street in Providence. Her store includes cookware, accessories and other items and has seen plenty of customer traffic in recent weeks.

Her employees need to be able to explain how carbon steel works, and the difference between a spatula and a turner.

As manager, she makes sure the prices are competitive with Amazon, so she can win customers over with better service. The customer, she says, gets more information on products from the local seller.

“We talk all day long,” she said.