Fuck Small Business Saturday

SmallBusinessSatrudayToday is Small Business Saturday. According to executives at American Express, who dreamed the whole thing up in 2010, it’s a day when Americans should eschew big box chains and fast food franchises, and spend their money closer to home, at independent shops owned and operated by people in their own communities. While I’ll acknowledge that the campaign is probably a net-positive, as it brings attention to the fact that people should be supporting businesses in their communities, I can’t help but think that American Express may not have the most pure of motivations.

I ran this suspicion of mine by my fried Dan, who runs an awesome retail business in Austin, Texas, and he responded with the following. “Visa and MasterCard are far cheaper for the merchants to accept (than American Express),” he said. “And I’ve become convinced that Small Business Saturday is really just an attempt to get all the small businesses who only take Visa and MasterCard to accept the punishing rates of American Express.”

It’s an interesting theory… American Express spends millions of dollars encouraging their cardholders to go into their communities and shop at locally owned stores, knowing full well that many, if not most, of these stores won’t be able to accept the cards handed to them… at least that first year. (My guess, and it would be interesting to check this out, is that American Express has seen a big growth in their non-corporate business since the launch of the Small Business Saturday campaign.)

Personally, that’s not what bothers me about Small Business Saturday, though. What bothers me is the inference that people should just support their local businesses one day out of the year. I find that offensive. (It’s like creating a holiday called Treat Women Like Your Equals Day.) People should be supporting their local businesses every day, and not just feeling good about themselves for doing it one day a year. And, even worse, the good folks at American Express have decided to schedule Small Business Saturday for the day after Black Friday, once everyone’s money has already been spent at those big box retailers. I understand, of course, why they’ve set it up this way. It’s an opportunity to create one more big shopping day, and, as it’s after Black Friday, it’s not likely to upset the Targets and the Walmarts of the world, who probably need a day to recover from Black Friday anyway, and restock their shelves. And they’re appealing to folks who may not otherwise indulge in post-Thanksgiving shopping… It’s pretty brilliant when you think about it.

All of this, of course, isn’t to say that I think any less of the downtown businesses that hung up AmEx banners in their windows and participated in today’s Small Business Saturday event. Buying local is awesome, regardless of corporate sponsorship. And it’s especially awesome around the holidays. This is why, for several years, Linette and I ran a “Shop Ypsi for the Holidays” campaign. I just don’t like that AmEx is glomming onto the buy local movement. It reminds me of when Walmart decided to get into organic produce. On one hand it was great, as it was introducing the concept to people, and making them aware of the fact that it really matters how, where, and by whom their food is grown. At the same time, though, once corporations like Walmart got on the organic bandwagon, it was just a matter of time before the term was watered down to the point of being meaningless. And, when I see big companies jump on the “buy local” campaign, I can’t help but feel the same thing is happening. It’s like the new ad campaign for Walgreens that positions them as our “neighborhood” pharmacy, without referencing the fact that they’re a multi-national corporation, or, more importantly, that they likely caused our real neighborhood pharmacy to go out of business.

But, like I said up front, I suspect, in the case of Small Business Saturday, that the good outweighs the bad. I just like to rant.

I should also add at this point that several friends of mine who accept American Express cards at their businesses do so because their cardholders typically spend more than those of us who carry MaterCard and Visa cards. So there really does appear to be a legitimate business reason to accept AmEx, in spite of the rates that they charge merchants.

One last thing… If you really want to help out your local business owners, don’t just make it a point to shop with them whenever possible, but try to pay with cash when you can. That 3.5%, or whatever it is, that they’re handing over to AmEx every time you use the card, could really make a big difference for a local shop owner operating on razor thin margins. I know it’s not always practical, but I know it’s very much appreciated when you can do it.

[If you’re interested in knowing why local business ecosystems are important, I’d encourage you to read my most recent post about the work of Michael Shuman. It’s really worth the time. I promise.]

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  1. Elize
    Posted November 29, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    I agree that it’s weird that it’s put on by a major corporation, but most people that utilized it today in Ypsi that I know, were spending cash. I have never seen the eyrie so packed! Also, I know the woman who organized the whole Ypsi branch of this event and she worked her ass off getting this going here. She’s a big part of organizations in Ypsi I.e FFY, heritage fest, and CR.

  2. Posted November 29, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the update, Elize. I’m glad to hear that people turned out and supported local Ypsi businesses today. I spent most of my day in the car, driving back from Kentucky, so I didn’t get out to do any shopping. If I’d been around, though, I likely would have. Although I’m not crazy about the corporate sponsorship, I do agree with the underlying message. And I hope that I didn’t give the impression in my post that I was less than impressed by the work being done on the ground in Ypsi. As someone who ran a Buy Local campaign here for a few years, I know how much work it is.

  3. Posted November 30, 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Why care whether a businessis local, small, big or corporate? We should be considering whether a business is good or bad. I’ve seen so many small and local businesses who offer their employees pittance wages and no benefits, in effect asking their employees to subsidize their rotten enterprises for… exactly what, no one knows.

    There are lots and lots of really awful small and local businesses. They may look cute on the outside but in the end they can abuse labor as badly as Wal Mart. For some reason, they’re given a free pass and I find this most distressing at all.

    Fuck small or large. Encourage all businesses to treat their employees fairly. If you can’t pay your employees a living wage and give them health benefits, shut the doors. You have no reason to exist.

    Having worked for a lot of really bad businesses, that’s my opinion.

  4. Posted November 30, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I agree, Pete. And I wasn’t suggesting that people patronize bad local businesses just because they are local. Furthermore, I have said good things on this site in the past about big businesses like Costco. So it’s not as simple as saying “Local Good, Chain Bad.” With all that being said, though, there are real, tangible benefits that come from spending your money locally. And, all things being equal, I’d like for people to at least consider their local options before going to the big box retailer. If you haven’t already, I’d suggest that you read one of my Michael Shuman posts, were I go into detail on why it’s important to support local businesses.

  5. Demetrius
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    As I was walking around yesterday, I noticed that manylocal businesses were displaying these “Small Business Saturday-sponsored by American Express” signs (and doormats) — and I had exactly the same thought.

    As more people are waking up … and becoming aware of how crucial it is to support independent local businesses, co-ops, credit unions, etc., I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the big multinationals are feeling a bit threatened … while at the same time (of course) looking for ways to profit from it.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Marks feeling are just hurt that his buy local campaigns weren’t nearly as successful.

  7. Ben
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I’m glad people are supporting local businesses. They are a big part of what makes Ypsi interesting. I’m really glad you explicitly said that people should spend CASH instead of cards. It’s rare to see that these days. I miss how the coop used to have a little sign on their cash register, letting people know that they accepted cards, but that it charged more for their use and that cash is better. Why wouldn’t an institution with inherent, intentional politics mention that anymore?

    Also, while I think a vibrant, diverse, small business collection of places is great for a city, it’s not the only way to creat wealth! We need more good paying jobs, UNION JOBS, for citizens. That’s what will ultimately help. Not everyone can be an entrepeneur and that goal feels very Snyderish / contemporary fake progressive / DLC / Third Way.

  8. Stupid Hick
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    The incentive was pretty good: spend $10 or more and get a $10 credit from Amex. At up to 3 different local stores. Did I hurt local businesses? Should I feel ashamed for participating?

  9. Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I felt ashamed that I bought anything at all this week, or at least, many of my “friends” on social media told me I should feel that way.

    And yes, I used my Amex because I get free airline miles for using it.

    Where is the evidence that supporting local businesses our of obligation is “crucial” to an economy? I ate at Bona Sera last night, and though it was good, we noted that you have to eat at places in Ypsi while they are there, because 6 months later, they might not be.

    This would tell me that it isn’t a matter of what kind of business there is, so much as that the market in Ypsi is just incredibly small. While I understand that people are trying to encourage participation in the local economy by saying “buy local,” the evidence would suggest that Ypsi is a tough market for anyone, big or small.

    While admirable, I don’t think that trying to make people feel obligated to shop at small local businesses is really the way to solve Ypsi’s economic woes in the long term.

  10. Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely not, Stupid Hick. As I mentioned in the post, I don’t blame businesses for participating. And, had I been here, I would have likely been doing my shopping as well. I just find the AmEx connection interesting, for the reasons outlined above. As for me feeling slighted by the fact that our little Ypsi “buy local for the holidays” campaign has evolved into this, I don’t think thats the case. I’m just happy that it’s happening. (I lost the energy to keep it going after a few years.) Still, though, I wish we weren’t in a position where American Express is pulling the strings. I prefer to see things come up from the grassroots than down from corporate.

  11. Posted November 30, 2014 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Hey Mark – I’ve been in small retail long enough to see a huge shift in how Thanksgiving weekend shopping goes. Back in the day when I was on Main Street in Ann Arbor “black Friday” was hands-down the best day of the entire holiday season, with possibly the Saturday before Christmas being better. Over the years the big box and department stores have really co-opted the whole thing and turned it into (even more of) a circus, and now the day after Thanksgiving is decent but unremarkable.

    Small Business Saturday, on the other hand, has grown into a huge deal. At my shop (Hugh in Midtown Detroit) we had throngs of people seriously shopping (unlike Friday, which was primarily “hey let’s show our visiting relatives Shinola” tourism). Most sales are not cash – maybe 10% these days – but I don’t really mind that much whether it’s Visa or Amex. The difference is not as huge as some people make it out to be, and any of the bank cards cost me.

    Not like I want to be super thankful that 3% of my gross now goes to banks instead of in my pocket, but Small Business Saturday is actually working. We get a lot of people who haven’t ever been in the shop who are excited to shop small. From my point of view Amex has, to some extent, salvaged the Thanksgiving weekend for small business.

  12. PrincessTinyMeat
    Posted December 2, 2014 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    Fuck capitalism.

  13. hondiggity
    Posted December 2, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Buy Local Day, Record Store Day, etc. are just bullshit marketing schemes that people fall for, hook, line and sinker. They feel so good Tweeting about helping out the “little guy” one day out of the year and then spend the rest of the time buying all the shit they don’t need on Amazon or whatever.

  14. Stupid Hick
    Posted December 3, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    “Buy Local Day, Record Store Day, etc. are just bullshit marketing schemes that people fall for, hook, line and sinker.”

    OMG, I was tricked into paying $10 less for something that I would have bought anyway! And it wasn’t at the retailer’s expense because they are reimbursed by Amex. What a scam! I feel terrible now.

  15. R
    Posted August 19, 2019 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Fuck that. Why not just call it “Pay more than you need to Saturday”? Fuck your local small businesses and fuck your sanctimonious shaming. I shop online because it’s cheaper and better. I don’t give a flying fuck if you gonout of business and you have to feed your family boot soup for dinner tonight.

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