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Come for the free cookies, stay for the shopping

This Small Business Saturday, expect free cookies, loyalty rewards and holiday cheer. But maybe not deep discounts.

For small business owners, surviving the past few years of lockdown, empty stores and supply chain shortages has been no small feat.

Now there's another beast rearing it's head: inflation.

"Our expenses have skyrocketed," said Tina Miller, the owner of Walkabout Outfitter, a family-owned chain in Virginia that sells outdoor gear.

That's mostly in payroll, said Miller, but she's also expecting the cost of her inventory to rise significantly.

Plus, Miller feels pressure to keep her prices low. She says sales have flat-lined compared to last year.

Miller is hoping to see things pick up this weekend, for Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. But she's worried.

"Are people going to hold back? Are they going to just go for less things? I'm not sure what's going to happen," said Miller.

"I am trying to very optimistic."

Small Business Saturday: An origin story

Small Business Saturday is a relatively new concept. It was started in 2010 by American Express, as a way to bring attention and customers to small businesses after the financial downturn of 2008 and 2009.

About $0.68 of every dollar spent at small businesses stays in the local community, according to a report from American Express.

And in 2011, the Senate passed a resolution recognizing the day, to encourage people to buy local.

Free cookies instead of sales

With rising costs and razor thin profit margins, many small businesses simply can't afford the massive markdowns and across the board sales the big retailers put on this weekend, so they're using other things to lure in shoppers.

NPR has been tracking the state of several small businesses since the pandemic began, and we reached out to three to see what they're expecting this shopping season.

Miller, the owner of Walkabout Outfitter, nearly went bankrupt in 2020. To survive, she launched an online store, too.

Many of her customers, mostly 40 to 50 year old women, now prefer to shop online, said Miller, but her brick-and-mortar stores are still crucial to her business.

Miller is hoping the in-person experience will draw customers to her store this weekend, because she doesn't plan to put a lot on sale.

The perks of shopping IRL? Free cookies and coffee.

Miller said what makes this weekend special isn't prices, anyway, it's atmosphere.

"I see all the people that I may not see throughout the year," said Miller. "It's usually busy and bustling and fun and people are in great moods."

Giving in the holiday spirit

Juby George started Smell the Curry - an Indian takeout restaurant and catering company - last December, after being a programmer for more than 20 years.

Inflation has driven the price of ingredients up — everything from meat to vegetables is now more expensive. But George isn't willing to shift that burden onto his customers. Instead, he tries to rework the menu to keep prices steady.

George is offering discounted meals to those in need this holidays season. He also gives leftover food to a local charity. "Nothing goes to waste on my end," said George.

Counting on loyalty

Patti Riordan is the owner of The Smoke Stack Hobby Shop in Lancaster, Ohio, which sells model trains and craft supplies.

She's doing what she's always done on Small Business Saturday: Riordan's got a loyalty program for her customers, and they'll double those rewards if they buy this weekend.

Riordan is excited to show off a new train collection, which her store acquired after a story about the shop aired on NPR in August.

Sales at The Smoke Stack have slowed in recent months. But Riordan is hopeful for this weekend. She sees it as an indicator of what sales will look like for the rest of the year.

"If it's really strong, then that, to me, kind of says the next four weeks are going to be strong. If it's soft, then we'll put our thinking caps on."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.
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