Forget Black Friday: independent retailers get ready for Small Business Saturday

Christmas shoppers are being encouraged to spend money locally, with shops holding street parties, fairs and treasure hunts to attract custom on 2 December.

You may not equate paddle boarding with Christmas, but Stand Up Paddle Board UK has festive plans for Small Business Saturday, which falls on 2 December this year.

“We’re going to get as many people as we can all dressed up in Santa hats, or as extreme as they want to go,” says Lianne Ing, who has been running the business with her partner Anthony in Glyndyfrdwy, north Wales, for the past seven years. “We’ll have a morning paddle and then come in for some hot chocolate. It’s just a bit of fun. It’s not really an earner, it’s just to get people together.”

It’s not an event the pair have marked before – Saturdays are a busy day for the business and they’re usually out on the water – but this year, Stand Up Paddle Board UK was one of 100 chosen by the Small Business Saturday team to be promoted in the run-up to the event.

The campaign celebrates its fifth birthday in the UK this year. Originally launched in the US in 2010, it comes a week after two big Christmas shopping days – Black Friday and Cyber Monday – that traditionally favour larger businesses. On Small Business Saturday, customers are encouraged to visit independent retailers in their communities, many of whom mark the event in some way. For instance, Becky Davies-Downes will be holding a vintage wedding photography competition at her shop William and Tilda in Ilkley, West Yorkshire; whereas Alessandra Sollberger, founder of London-based Evermore Health, will be volunteering her time to run online mentoring sessions.

In 2016, an estimated £717m was spent with small businesses on Small Business Saturday, up 15% on the year before. It’s an event supported by 82% of UK councils, many of whom will waive parking charges, close roads and support markets or fairs.

In the market town of Wimborne, Dorset, a number of retailers have received £2,500 in funding from the council-run business improvement district, to hold a street party. The idea was the brainchild of Laura Green, owner of craft beer bar the Butcher’s Dog Bar & Bottleshop, and Georgie Boyd, who opened cafe and bar the Thirsty Bird earlier this year.

“[East Street] is full of independent businesses and we all have a really good relationship with each other,” Green says. “We’re not in the centre of town, we’re in a secondary shopping area, and we all know we wouldn’t have survived unless we had this relationship and we all helped each other. We wanted to show that collaborative nature off [by holding a party].”

So far, 20 retailers – including a patisserie, butcher, beauticians and two estate agents – have agreed to participate in some way, whether that’s entering the Christmas window display competition, donating prizes for the raffle, or housing Santa’s grotto. They’re expecting a good turnout, but Boyd says that driving sales is not necessarily a top priority for the businesses involved. “Even if you’re not a business that’s going to make tons of sales on the day, it’s driving awareness that we’re here so people remember in the future.”

Bala Croman is limbering up for her busiest period of the year at Merseyside chocolatier the Chocolate Cellar, but will make time to mark Small Business Saturday, as she does every year. She was part of the 2016 Small Business Saturday 100 cohort and has since been appointed a Small Business Saturday champion for her area. Croman will have a stand at Liverpool’s Winter Arts Market on 2 December, an event for independent entrepreneurs, which, she says, is always well supported by the public.

“Last year, people had to queue for about two hours to get in,” she says. “That’s one of the most amazing things about Liverpool – the local community are very supportive of anyone trying something new. [When I started out] people would stop me in the street to ask how it was going.”

In late November this year, Croman invited a local jewellery maker, florist and candle maker to bring a table and sell their wares to kick off the Christmas season. She’s also part of a network that meets once a month to swap stories and trade advice, and is a big believer in the power of small businesses supporting each other.

“I feel [part of my role as a Small Business Saturday champion] is to tell other owners that they’re not alone. It is so isolating, running a business. You need to work with other people – not just for promotional purposes, but also to support each other.”

Michelle Ovens, director of Small Business Saturday, says the event is the ideal time to attract new customers before Christmas and has become an established part of the entrepreneurial calendar. “We always hoped it would be huge and it really surprised everyone quite how much people really engaged with it,” she says. “It’s become really embedded in people’s communities. People call us in September saying: ‘We’re printing our diaries for next year, what’s the date going to be?’”

In a survey of more than 700 businesses, from the 25,000 signed up for the campaign’s newly launched Small Business Finder app, 90% said they felt it was important for small businesses to play an active role in their local communities. “I think that’s part of the reason why Small Business Saturday has gone so well, because it’s a moment for those communities to come together and support one another,” Ovens says. “That’s not just nice to have for these businesses, it’s part of their DNA.

“We always encourage people to do something, but we wouldn’t mandate that retailers have to do lots of offers. We don’t want them to give away all of their margin before Christmas.

“Just create some excitement – give people a reason to make that extra trip. Customers find gems on Small Business Saturday and come back again and again.”