It all started back in 2010 as a promotion by American Express, which didn't have a great reputation with small businesses at the time because they charged more than the other cards. They still support it, but the concept has grown bigger than them and is now estimated to have generated $85 billion in sales at small businesses.
You should support Small Business Saturday if you care about the quality of main streets in your towns and cities; small businesses are their backbone. You should also support it if you care about your carbon footprint because small businesses are probably the ones within walking distance.
But most importantly, you should support it if you have kids, because small businesses create more jobs per dollar spent than big and online businesses. One study of Grand Rapids, Michigan, found that a lot more money stayed in town, mostly for wages.
When West Michigan consumers choose a locally owned business over a non-local alternative, $68 of every $100 spent stays in the community. By contrast, only $43 of every $100 spent at a non-locally owned business remains in the community.
That study, like Small Business Saturday, was from 2010, when the big threat to Main Street was Walmart and the big box stores in the suburbs. Since then, the whole retail world has changed, with online shopping and Amazon in particular. Small neighborhood businesses often survived because they were convenient, if a bit more expensive. Now, the most convenient option is to pick up your iPhone — and the local shops are closing in droves. As Derek Thompson notes in The Atlantic:
Walking around the Upper East Side, where I live, I find it striking how many of the establishments still standing among the many darkened windows are hair salons, nail salons, facial salons, eyebrow places, and restaurants. What’s the one thing they have in common? You won’t find their services on Amazon. The internet won’t cut my hair, and not even the most homesick midwesterner goes online to order a deep dish to be delivered from Chicago to New York.
And who's behind the counter in those coffee shops and bakeries? Mostly millennials, people like my son who mongers cheese at Nancy's. Or my daughter who manages two Red Rocket coffee shops.
Or my son-in-law who slings beer at Blood Brothers. In 10 years, these jobs with personal touches, with real customer relationships may well be the only ones left.
It's the service industries like these that will save our main streets. They are also the businesses that give our kids jobs close to home, that make our towns nice places to live in and to visit. People like my kids selling craft beer, fine cheese and great coffee are what makes our neighborhoods interesting and vibrant.
So this Small Business Saturday, support your neighborhood stores and help keep your Main Street alive. And look at who is behind the counter; it's probably a millennial or even a Generation Z kid on their first gig. Put your money in their pocket instead of Amazon's.
But also think about it the rest of the year, because you can't drink all that much beer on one special day. And leave a good tip; it's our kids behind the counter.