February 27, 2024
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Dubroff: Small Business Saturday adds up for Orcutt’s Mark Steller


Henry Dubroff

Henry Dubroff

In a year where Black Friday disappointed the big boxes and Cyber Monday was not as strong as online giants might have liked, Mark Steller is happy about the smaller scale results that Small Business Saturday delivered for Orcutt’s Old Town Market.

I first met Steller in August when he was our North Santa Barbara County winner at our annual Spirit of Small Business awards. His talk about leaving a big drug store chain to strike out on his own struck a chord with me.

After all, I’m a former editor for a large publication — The Denver Post — who formed my own company to produce a weekly business journal for the Central Coast.

For Steller, this year’s Small Business Saturday was a big deal — it coincided with the 10th anniversary of his Old Town Market. So he had an old-fashioned celebration in the parking lot, complete with a radio broadcast, live music and giveaways of ice cream and hot dogs.

After 10 years, Steller has learned the virtues of patience and he thinks that Small Business Saturday, now in its fifth year with American Express as the major force behind the project, will eventually pay off. The demographics for the AmEx buyer are one reason—they represent an upscale buyer who can help him move some of the Central Coast wines that have become a specialty of his store.

“Not too many people with an American Express card are going to care about coming in to save a few bucks to buy groceries,” he said when I reached him by phone shortly after the anniversary festivities wound down. “But they will buy wine.”

Steller estimates that something like 20 people came in over the Small Business Saturday period and spent about $800, mostly on wine. And he said the word about Small Business Saturday is starting to resonate with a population that’s bigger than the small number of folks in the Santa Maria Valley who will go to the trouble to register with AmEx, use their cards and qualify for money back on future purchases.

“It’s a little bigger than just the American Express card,” he said, “now people are starting to put two and two together. It is kind of a movement.”

Sellers credits the American Express ad campaign for creating a kind of Main Street vibe that’s reaching beyond the Black Friday and Cyber Monday devotees and getting people who truly care about their local business and locally-produced products.

That’s important in a world where small stores like Old Town Market must compete, as Steller says, “with any major retailer in the world.” It is a constant fight to battle the perception that smaller stores are more expensive—a perception that lingers, particularly for grocery shoppers.

Reporting from Forbes indicates that Steller is not alone in thinking that something is going on with Small Business Saturday. A report from the National Federation of Independent Business and American Express indicated that something like 88 million consumers consciously bought products at small businesses on Nov. 29; that’s up 14.9 percent from a year earlier.

According to the Amex-NFIB survey about two-thirds of the U.S. population was aware of Small Business Saturday and, according to Forbes, “a reported $14.3 billion was spent with independent retailers and restaurants on the day — an increase of 2.1 percent from $14 billion in 2013.”

Something is happening with Small Business Saturday. But we’ll have to wait another year to see if this year’s momentum is sustainable.