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Black Friday or Small Business Saturday?

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Black Friday or Small Business Saturday?
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Consumers have it all their way this time of year. The annual rite-of-shopping-passage the day after Thanksgiving was given the name Black Friday some years ago, and as online shopping became mainstream, Cyber Monday came into being. Sandwiched in between might be the best day of the shopping season for consumers and for local merchants. It’s called Small Business Saturday and, although pioneered by American Express and meant to drive consumers into local shops which accept the AmEx card, it is the concept of Small Business Saturday (SBS) that has to be admired.

A discussion this week on RetailWire.com solicited strong opinion on the virtues of SBS for merchants and highlighted the levers that local merchants have to work with to attract shoppers away from their national competitors, the malls, and online stores. Among a list of approaches that local merchants could use to make the most of SBS, “paying attention to customer service” ranked at the top.

This might be the year that attention shifts to the local merchant more than ever and here’s why: Black Friday has come to represent not only bargain prices, but parking and service hassles that test the patience of even the most ardent discount seeker. The frenzy associated with Black Friday has expanded to include people being trampled to death and in-store fisti-cuffs and now retailers have decided to add to the Black Friday bloat by opening stores in the evening on Thanksgiving day. Both Target and Walmart have been heavily criticized by the media for extending store hours and many consumers are skeptical of just how far we should allow the pursuit of material goods to displace valuable family time during the holidays.

Maybe most impacting has been the employee backlash over the earlier opening. Target employees have staged protests for being expected to interrupt their holiday to man aisles and cash registers in the store and Walmart employees have staged similar protests. Visit the video here from CBS News to encounter a particularly heart breaking story of a Walmart employee who states that his hours were cut back when he joined a group of Walmart employees who favored unionizing and subsequently lost custody of his son as he could not make ends meet. While the employee featured in the video states that he will not show up for work on Black Friday this year in protest of Walmart policies, a company spokesperson in the video discards the furor as a “publicity stunt” and issues an indirect threat of job loss to those who choose to protest by their absence from work.

There are always two sides to every story and  as one friend of mine who runs multiple restaurants has told me “if you don’t want to work on holidays, you’re in the wrong business”. Point taken, but retailers might also want to reconsider where to draw the lines and find a balance that would leave employees in a more cheery mood to greet customers looking for those killer bargains.

All of this brings me back to the promise of Small Business Saturday. I wrote recently about a local merchant coalition forming in my community in South Florida and noted that Zavee.com has done a great job creating a social shopping club using registered card as a means of customer identification and tracking. For the AmEx specific version of SBS, cardholders who spend $25 or more with a designated local merchant participating in the promotion can earn a one time $25 credit to their account. That’s a good start, but why not extend this campaign to support local merchants on a continual basis?

Outside of Zappos.com, which has seemingly mastered the art of customer service and knocked down common barriers to online shopping in the process, few online merchants can match up to the hand-holding and pampering that can take place in local merchant stores. And, by continually extending store hours, don’t offline retailers dilute their ability to deliver heavily discounted merchandise and increase the odds that their “door buster” items will be increasingly viewed as bait to get shoppers in the door?

Customer loyalty might begin with discounts, points, and rebates, but is made permanent through good service and the forming of true relationships with customers. A courageous national merchant could make small changes to its Black Friday policies and improve its standing with both customers and employees alike. Business results could actually improve by backing off just a bit.

Or, in 5 more years we could end up with “Black Friday Week”.

Which will it be?

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