BY JACKSON CHEN | Small business owners in East Harlem may have jumped aboard the don’t-forget-us shopping holiday that follows by one day the blockbuster Black Friday, but they weren’t holding out unduly great expectations for Small Business Saturday.
The “Shop Small” day was created in 2010 by American Express to follow directly on Black Friday’s big box store bonanza. With a seventh year under its belt, AmEx — in a report done with the National Federation of Independent Business — is touting increasing numbers regarding those aware of and shopping during Small Business Saturday.
According to its report on the 2016 results from November 26, there was a 13 percent increase from last year in shopping at small businesses throughout the country. Additionally, AmEx’s report noted that 72 percent of American consumers are now aware of Small Business Saturday and more than 6,700 organizations held events in their communities to celebrate.
In East Harlem, the local merchants association is in its second year observing the day and organized a pop-up shop at the community plaza at East 125th Street and Park Avenue.
“Anything we can do to help draw attention to our small business owners in the neighborhood is a great success,” Carey King, the director of the New Harlem East Merchants Association (NHEMA), said. “Traditionally, Black Friday has been the day that gets all the attention, and so it’s really a community-building thing for all our local merchants to put on an event to highlight everything that is good about all the creative and independent merchants.”
With holiday music blasting in the background, King was spreading the motto of “Shop Small” to neighborhood residents. One of the main features of the pop-up from 1 to 5 p.m. was Jessica Taige’s online small business of handmade peanut butter cups, Jessie’s Nutty Cups. It was Taige’s first time participating in promotions, but she noted she was already sold on the trend of supporting small businesses first.
“I know I personally have started looking when I go into stores for the more off-brand, small-business brands,” Taige said. “Black Friday is like the huge stores; Small Business Saturday is specifically targeted for smaller businesses like me so I feel like that’s going to be a lot more useful.”
Taige, who has run her business for more than two years, is one of the relatively new entrepreneurs participating in the day, but the merchants association also recruited veteran small business owners into the mix.
Sade Tyler, the owner of Omo Sade African Skincare and Cosmetics, has been in business since 1989 but has bounced around and eventually landed at her fifth storefront at 2084 Lexington Avenue, just below East 126th Street. While participating in NHEMA’s Small Business Saturday promotions, Tyler let out a curt “eh” when asked if the holiday benefitted her store.
Tyler said that it was being in business for nearly 30 years that has secured her a dedicated customer base. While she noticed a strong current of customers on Friday, she attributed that to many shoppers having the day off from work.
The beautician, however, did not diminish the important positive thrust behind trying to support small businesses.
“There’s actually a recognition of small businesses, that we still exist,” Tyler said. “It’s a wonderful thing. That’s what I really liked about the concept, and I think if they keep doing it for a few years it gets people to think about small businesses.”
With East Harlem suffering from a high number of empty storefronts, local business owners agreed that any form of promotion was a plus. Princess Jenkins, the owner of The Brownstone, a contemporary women’s lifestyle boutique, likened supporting small businesses to investments into your community.
“It’s so important that people understand the relationship of small businesses to the community,” Jenkins said. “We are the people who are going to hire, teach, and train young people. We’re the same ones who are going to keep the neighborhood clean, and we’re the same people who are going to bring the very best of what we’re offering to our residents and customers.”
Jenkins admitted the sales and traffic she got at her store on 24 East 125th Street did not reflect a huge surge on Saturday, but the idea behind it was worth it, she said. Proving she walks the walk of her talk about community, she opened up a chunk of her retail space to create a pop-up shop for a greeting card company owned by another small merchant, Tanea Smith.
Though Small Business Saturday is in its seventh year nationwide, the shopping holiday as it exists in Manhattan, Jenkins noted, faces the challenges of an environment that offers a glut of shopping options. She and her likeminded peers in East Harlem agreed that even though there has recently been more attention paid to small businesses, a lot more work is needed for them to compete effectively with the likes of Walmart or Macy’s.
“With the promotion of Small Business Saturday, it helps people to at least think small before they go big,” Jenkins said. “It’s a mindset change. It’s going to take time.”