Holiday sales didn’t stop on Black Friday for Brooklynites this year as they turned out in force to support their entrepreneurial neighbors on Small Business Saturday.
Started by American Express in 2010 as a counter to Black Friday and Cyber Monday which tended to focus on big chains and discounts on big-ticket items, Small Business Saturday encourages people across the country to see what’s for sale in their own neighborhoods on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
“One thing definitely that has changed over the years is it’s really gotten a lot more notoriety,” said Randy Peers, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “There’s a lot of local promotion of Small Business Saturday by BIDs (Business Improvement Districts), by merchants associations, and by other groups. From the chamber of commerce’s perspective, it’s great to see that kind of localized energy being put behind promoting this.”
Picking up gifts on Small Business Saturday
Peers spent his Saturday stopping in at events all over the borough — attending the ribbon-cutting for the Bed Stuy Gateway BID’s Winter Wonderland, shopping on Tompkins and Knickerbocker avenues, stopping in at an event hosted by the Rockaway Parkway Merchants Association, and wrapping up at the Park Slope Fifth Avenue BID’s annual Small Business Saturday tree lighting.
“What I observed was just really a lot of excitement, a lot of great energy,” he said. “I think some of it is people have waited a year to be able to come out again and really kind of participate in these kinds of events.”
Whether the increased popularity of Small Business Saturday and the enthusiasm of the shopping crowds last weekend will translate to an uptick in revenue is yet to be seen, Peers said, but so far the holiday season is shaping up to be much better for local shop owners than last year’s.
Omicron, the newest variant of the coronavirus, could throw a wrench in that — but so far, business owners aren’t letting it get to them, said Paul Samulski, president of the North Brooklyn Chamber.
In part, he said, it’s because the initial reports have said that those infected with omicron have had mild symptoms — not the trademark loss of taste or smell associated with COVID-19, no major respiratory issues.
“The common reaction within the business world seems to be ‘Enough already. Isn’t this thing ever going away?’ followed by ‘I guess we’ll just have to keep doing what we’re doing and remain vigilant with regard to our protocols,’” he said.
Adapting to the times
While the threat of another round of restrictions is daunting, not everything influenced by the pandemic was negative.
So far, Peers has seen an uptick in pop-up shopping events, he said, outdoor collections of individual retailers selling their wares — both the Bed-Stuy Winter Wonderland and the Rockaway Parkway events were pop-ups. The temporary shops gained popularity during the pandemic, he said, in part because the outdoor stalls were a safer way to shop and sell for those concerned about returning to physical stores.
“If you’re a small business that doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar, or if you’re a brick-and-mortar who wanted to participate in a pop-up, you had that opportunity, maybe it was a new location for some of our brick-and-mortar businesses,” he said.
They also draw people to the neighborhoods they’re based in, he said, creating a little showcase of the retail corridor’s unique qualities.
The pop-ups also often have an online presence, he said, so shoppers can browse through sellers and make purchases even if they’re not ready to buy when they come upon the pop up, or note the stores they’d like to return to later.
The pandemic also pushed many business owners into establishing or expanding their online presence to make up for the lack of in-person sales last year, Peers said. The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce offered free services for those looking to make the jump and keep their businesses afloat.
“It wasn’t a luxury any more, it was a lifeline,” he said.
While in-person shopping has returned, keeping up an online presence is vital for small businesses, he said. A website might be the first — or only — point of contact a customer has with the shop if they’re able to order online, and more importantly, when potential shoppers search for something like “Bushwick holiday shopping,” a store with an established e-commerce business is more likely to come up in search results than one without.
Expanding e-commerce and finding new ways to sell at pop-up events may give business owners more opportunity to grow their customer base and make sales, but they’re also, at the end of the day, a result of the struggles of lockdowns and long months of low revenue.
“We lost small businesses, anywhere, depending on the commercial corridor, from 20 percent to maybe a third of small businesses have closed permanently,” Peers said. “Consumers who frequented those businesses that have now closed, they lament the fact that they lost these businesses to something they couldn’t control. How they can help now is really shifting from doing this online shopping to local small business shopping. That trend, I hope, will continue.”
Shopping local is important beyond the holiday season, he said.
“I hope consumers really do see this as a movement back toward supporting local, and shopping local, and really, really putting the consumer power behind the mom-and-pop businesses that truly make our community special.”