Local businesses will kick off the holiday season this weekend with Whitefish Bay's Holiday Stroll event Friday and Small Business Saturday, an American Express initiative to promote local shopping in its second year.
The businesses hope to offer an alternative to the traditional rushes at bigger stores on Black Friday.
"My customer wants more of a fun shopping experience instead of a rush, rush, rush," said John Stuhlmacher, owner of Winkies. "We put out snacks and cider, and sample chocolates and candies to make it more relaxing and what I think I would like out of a shopping experience. You won’t see me near the malls. I want to make the opposite feel for my customers."
The Holiday Stroll event, from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, will feature a parade at 6 p.m. marshaled by local Girl Scouts and will end with a tree-lighting ceremony with Santa. During the event, there will be pony and train rides, and performers from the Milwaukee Ballet in shop windows. Businesses will be offering promotions and free samples.
"It's something the businesses like to do to give back to the community," said Karen Mathu, executive director of the village's Business Improvement District. "It's a good chance to get together."
Often unable to compete with prices at bigger stores, Stuhlmacher said small businesses can be more successful when they team up for events like the stroll to illustrate what local businesses have to offer
Stuhlmacher said it helps to be in a such a concentrated business district in Whitefish Bay, where business owners support each other.
"I have a lot of contact with other Hallmark store owners and they are, for lack of better word, jealous of the atmosphere we have here," Stuhlmacher said. "We have a lot of unique independent boutiques that can’t be replicated anywhere."
Small Businesses in the Limelight on Saturday
On Saturday, organizers hope millions of Americans will shop at local small businesses to earn rewards like $25 statement credits for American Express card members who spend $25 or more on at a qualifying small business. More than 2 million people like the event's Facebook page.
According to a report conducted by American Express OPEN Independent Retail Index, locally owned businesses declined from 59 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2009 nationally.
However, local business owners are optimistic about the future of small business.
In southeastern Wisconsin, 192 small businesses are members of Local First Milwaukee, a coalition that promotes shopping local for the economic, environmental and social effects on a community.
“We’re not saying it’s wrong to buy things at a chain store. It just means so much more when you buy it locally,” Local First Milwaukee President Pam Mehnert said. “That money stays in Milwaukee and creates jobs here.”
In a survey of its members, 55 percent reported that their businesses were growing – meaning sales are up and they are hiring new employees.
The member businesses have monthly gatherings in which they exchange ideas, and many use each other’s products and services in their stores.
“Local businesses tend to do business with other local businesses,” Mehnert, who is also the general manager of Outpost Natural Foods, said. “At Outpost, our accountants are local, our attorneys are local, we’re buying packaging supplies local. We work together.”
Customer Service is Vital to Success
In Whitefish Bay, Stuhlmacher said the pervasiveness of local business has created an atmosphere where people expect to be able to meet an owner when they come into a store on Silver Spring Drive, and look for highly attentive customer service.
"I caution people when they say they want to open some type of franchise here," Stuhlmacher, who is also the president of the Business Improvement District, said. "Whitefish Bay shoppers expect to see the owner when they come in. They expect a one-on-one environment, not such a sterile environment."
Mehnert said she thinks one reason people like to support local businesses is because of their responsiveness to individual needs.
“When a supply chain is controlled by larger corporations, they’re actually determining what products are available to customers,” Mehnert said. “It’s this whole complex system of control. But a local bookstore is going to sell titles that aren’t just in the top 100. They’re going to take special requests and provide different services for individuals.”
Small Business Owners are Hands On
Randall Hoth, president of the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau, said the bureau supports small, local businesses because the owners often work directly with consumers and have a deep investment in the community.
Hoth said 90 percent of Wisconsin businesses that are accredited with the Better Business Bureau and pledge to uphold its code of ethics are small business owners with 25 or fewer employees. Eighty percent have 10 or fewer employees.
“I think it’s a huge thing for the consumer to know that you’re doing business face to face with an owner that cares about your business,” Hoth said. “They’re the ones pledging to do the right thing for their customers.”
Hoth said he hopes consumer appreciation for small businesses extends beyond Small Business Saturday.
“It’s not just for one Saturday that we’re supporting this,” he said. “We think small businesses are important to the economic future of this country. It’s a really viable and important economic engine for growth.”