business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

The brick-and-mortar behemoths start their clocks at midnight on Black Friday. The online giants aim to eclipse previous holiday season sale records on Cyber Monday.

And beginning this year on November 27th, the independents get a day of their own on Small Business Saturday.

Not the catchiest name, perhaps, but part of a national effort to drive shopping traffic to the local emporiums - from bookstores to gift shops to drug stores to supermarkets. And it’s notable in that the medium for connecting traditional mom-and-pop stores with their customers is non-traditional – namely Facebook, with an assist from Twitter.

The program was launched by American Express OPEN, the company’s small business unit, with support from more than a dozen groups ranging from city visitor’s bureaus, community organizations and New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It is designed to appeal to both cardholders and proprietors.

Here’s how:

• American Express will give $100 of free Facebook advertising to the first 10,000 business owners who sign up at to encourage shoppers to buy local. The deadline for registering is 11:59 p.m. tonight. (To be eligible, the fine print states a small business must have a website or a Fan Page on Facebook and $10 million or less in annual revenue. Other restrictions apply.) Independently owned supermarkets and gourmet shops fall within the parameters ... but chains are specifically excluded. The ads will be geo-targeted and run on Facebook from Nov. 22-27.

• Additionally, AmEx is giving a $25 statement credit to 100,000 card members who register their card on line and shop on Nov. 27th at any locally-owned, independent small businesses that accept American Express. (Full disclosure: I registered my card and plan to purchase the new Mickey Mantle biography “The Last Boy” at Elm Street Books in New Canaan, CT).

• Facebook has donated $500,000 in Facebook credits for the participating small business owners to use in the future.

• For every person who “likes” Small Business Saturday on Facebook, American Express is donating $1 up to $500,000 to Girls Inc., which encourages entrepreneurship among young women.

In the last 48 hours, the number of “likes” jumped from 140,000 to more than 223,000, so the movement is clearly gaining traction on Facebook. The majority of the comments are positive, with “shout-outs” for small business in general and local favorites.

Will the initiative succeed in drawing shoppers to Main Street, in lieu of a mall or the ease of online shopping from home, or in the case of Cyber Monday from the office?

Unlike the eagerly awaited numbers from Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it will be difficult to measure. One proprietor who signed on Leslie Allick of Lola’s Tea House in Pelham, NY, which offers light fare and sells gourmet teas. She encouraged the merchants on her block to do so as well. “I thought why not give it a try,” she said.

This being the unedited internet, there is also criticism of American Express, notably from those who complain that the firm’s fee structure is prohibitive, particularly for small businesses.

One of its online defenders is spokesperson Cinda Baxter, a retail consultant blogger who is founder of The 3/50 Project, which encourages consumers to commit spending $50 a month to three locally-owned businesses.

She responded to critics that the program had already generated “a whole lot of ink and air time we wouldn’t otherwise have. Major win for the little guys here.”

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