Small businesses seek their piece of holiday pie today

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Crowds on Friday lined up at malls and big-box stores for bargain prices on televisions, laptops and hand-held video games. Today, small businesses hope it's their turn.

Across the nation, locally owned stores are offering incentives as part of the second annual Small Business Saturday, a campaign to help these businesses get a share of the multibillion-dollar holiday retail sales season.

Last year's inaugural Small Business Saturday drew kudos as well as some critics, who said it better served sponsor American Express than local businesses. American Express doesn't have figures on how many shopped small businesses last year.

This year's campaign includes a TV ad blitz and a Facebook campaign with more than 2.4 million "likes." American Express also has an offer granting 300,000 preregistered shoppers $25 credits for using their cards Saturday at small businesses also registered with the event. American Express is sponsoring special events in 15 cities.

In Charlotte's South End neighborhood, for example, merchants and city tourism leaders are hosting a daylong celebration that includes gift-wrapping stations, live music and visits with Santa.

Elsewhere, merchants are promoting the day through special incentives. At The Last Word, a Charlotte store that sells used books, CDs, DVDs and videos, customers will get 5 percent off any purchase.

The year-old store counts this holiday shopping season as critical, owner Elizabeth Pope said, since business slowed a bit in September and October after students returned to school.

"I'm hoping people see opportunity ... to buy used things for less money. They can make their money go farther," Pope said. "I'm hoping this season brings in people who haven't considered us before."

Keen, the shoe boutique owner, hopes Saturday's gift-certificate contest spurs customers to buy boots and other winter styles. By January, her store features resort-wear and spring styles, Keen said. "You don't want to go into the new year with leftover inventory from the previous season."

South End merchant Rodney Hines of High Cotton Home, a furnishings boutique, sent 5,000 emails informing customers about special discounts on some items Saturday and touting its unique offerings, from leather-encased napkin holders to luxurious bedding.

Hines said Small Business Saturday is the chance for local owners to show off what makes them special year-round:

"Good product, good merchandising and good service."

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