Emory expert: small businesses have a big impact

A Gallup poll anticipating this holiday season found that Americans are planning to spend an average of $932 each on holiday gifts, a number that approaches the pre-pandemic number of $942 in 2019. In 2020 and 2021, holiday spending averages per person were $805 and $837, respectively, according to Gallup research.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), Americans will collectively spend $960.4 billion on holiday shopping this year, up 6 to 8 percent over 2021 spending. The Thanksgiving holiday weekend—once considered the starting point for holiday shopping—is now about the mid-point and thus a good indicator of the entire season, NRF reports. This year, on Thanksgiving weekend, which for research purposes includes the Monday after the holiday, Americans spent a record $196.7 billion, according to NRF.

If a sizable portion of that money is spent at small local businesses, the community and consumers will benefit along with the business owners, according to Erin Inglehart, program director of Goizueta Business School at Emory University’s Start:ME initiative. “Local spending boosts the local economy. Local businesses use local resources and hire local people, who in turn have money to spend in the community—there’s a compounding local impact. Each small business has little impact by itself, but collectively they make a big difference,” Inglehart said.

Often small businesses are competing with online purchasing and national stores—and do have some disadvantages, according to Inglehart. “Small businesses can’t offer the discounts and such perks as free shipping that businesses that operate on a huge scale can offer and remain profitable, so they must be creative,” she said.

Small businesses, Inglehart said, can attract customers by creating a vibrant space—a place customers enjoy shopping, particularly during the holiday season. “Generations ago, holiday shoppers went downtown and enjoyed decorations, music, and special events at big department stores. Small shops can create some of that excitement for the current generation. I know of small businesses that hold ‘sip and shop’ events or arrange cookie decorating to keep youngsters busy while their parents shop,” she said.

Networking with other small businesses is another strategy that can boost sales, Inglehart suggested. “They can partner on special events,” she said, recalling an event in which several Decatur-area independent bookstores created a “passport” that could be stamped after purchases at the stores with customers rewarded after a number of stamps.

Inglehart said many consumers now shop intentionally. They know the value of spending with local merchants and decide to spend at least part of their holiday money with small, local shops.
NRF findings confirm that many consumers plan their holiday shopping to include small retail shops. The nationwide retail association reports that 77 percent of those who shopped the Saturday after Thanksgiving said they were specifically choosing to shop that day because it was designated Small Business Saturday.

Recognizing small businesses as important to the economy, Emory University’s Business School created its Start:ME Business Accelerator Program, a free, intensive initiative for “promising local small businesses… drawing talented entrepreneurs that live, work, and/or provide valuable products and services to the community.” Start: ME currently operates within the Clarkston, East Lake, and Atlanta southside communities.

Start:ME participants may be first-time business owners and typically have “microbusinesses” with one to five employees, Inglehart said, adding that “during the program and beyond, Start:ME connects those entrepreneurs to the knowledge, networks, and capital needed to build and develop sustainable businesses.” She said the program works across all business stages and industries—mechanics, artists/makers, professional services, bakers/caterers, farmers, tutors, and others.

“Operating a small business requires a good deal of time and energy. Often the owner is the only fulltime employee, so entrepreneurs are likely to be passionate about their businesses. They are likely to go above and beyond to see that their customers are satisfied,” Inglehart said, citing another reason for consumers to patronize local shops. “Besides,” she added, “when you do business with a small shop, you’re helping someone realize their dreams.”

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