A sign on North Country Road in front of The Gift Corner in Mount Sinai during the Black Friday weekend could be easy to miss. Cars passing by had only seconds to read the words “Small Store Saturday — If you haven’t been here, today is the day!” as they drove on the winding road.
Marion Bernholz, the owner of The Gift Corner, was busy on Small Business Saturday and the entire Black Friday weekend, marked on the calendar by shop owners and customers alike as the unofficial kickoff to the holiday shopping season. The small space, packed with small decorations and knickknacks, had customers squeezing past each other as they picked out their holiday gifts. Despite the bump in business Bernholz saw over the weekend, she wondered why relatively few people have even heard of Small Business Saturday.
“How long has this been going on, eight to 10 years?” the gift shop owner said. “It still cracks me up we have people coming in on Saturday and, holy Christmas, they say, ‘What is small store Saturday?’”
Small Business Saturday originally started in 2010, sponsored by American Express, as a way to incentivize people to shop local during the busiest shopping weekend of the year.
American Express reported the weekend after Thanksgiving was quite a busy time for small businesses across the nation. Consumers spent approximately $17.8 billion nationally while shopping local, according to data released Nov. 26 from the 2018 Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey from American Express and the nonprofit National Federation of Independent Business. The survey noted 42 percent of those surveyed reported shopping at local retailers and restaurants, just 1 percent down from last year. Still, 41 percent reported also shopping online that same day.
Those small business owners surveyed in the report said they expect an average of 29 percent of their total yearly sales to come through the holiday season, yet the owners of local small stores on the North Shore know they have a disadvantage compared to big box stores and the online retail giant Amazon and the like.
“People should understand how hard it is to run a small business,” Maria Williams, the owner of Sweets N Scoops in Shoreham said. “A small business’ costs are necessarily greater because we can’t buy in bulk like [large businesses] can.”
Business owners across the North Shore reported a range of outcomes from the busy shopping weekend.
Ecolin Jewelers, 14 E. Broadway, Port Jefferson
Linda Baker, co-owner of Ecolin Jewelers, said while most of her sales come in the last two weeks before Christmas, and not the Black Friday weekend, the year overall has been very good for her business.
“This whole year has been better,” Baker said. “This is probably the best in maybe eight years.”
She said she she’s experienced more people coming in toward the end of the year, with the phones constantly ringing off the hook with people’s orders, adding she’s feeling good about her numbers for the season.
“I’m glad to see that people are happy, walking around and coming into stores,” she said.
The East End Shirt Company, 3 Mill Creek Road, Port Jefferson
Owner of The East End Shirt Company, Mary Joy Pipe, said her business participated in the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce annual Holiday Shopping Crawl, offering a free hoodie valued at $20 for those spending $50 in store. She added turnout on Small Business Saturday was comparable to last year, and that has always had to do with the foot traffic and the weather.
“Our Santa Parade brings a lot of people down into the village, and more folks are around for the extended holiday after Thanksgiving,” she said. “We need feet on the ground and nice weather, and we got that on Saturday.”
Pipe’s business has changed with the times. East End Shirt has both a website and brick-and-mortar storefront, but her online component is a comparatively small percentage of her sales compared to her shop, which has existed in Port Jeff for close to four decades, she said.
“Is Cyber Monday or Cyber Week having an effect? — yeah it is,” she said. “People are not coming out, but anything that has a shipping component I know the potential for retail is still there if they can’t get it shipped in time.”
Red Shirt Comics, 322 Main St., Port Jefferson
Joshua Darbee, the owner of Red Shirt Comics, said he had multiple sales going on, including buy-one-get-one-free on new comics, 25 percent off back issue comics, and 20 percent off on most of the toys and graphic novels in the shop. As a store that only opened in 2017, Darbee has been working to build a loyal customer base.
“If people are going to buy on Amazon, they’re going to buy on Amazon,” he said. “There’s really no competing with them.”
The comic industry relies on periodicals, driving customers back monthly for the next issue in an ongoing series, and Darbee said without return customers there is no way his business can thrive. He saw a steady stream of traffic come into his shop during Black Friday weekend — a better turnout than last year — and he hopes those sales, along with his card game and tabletop role-playing events hosted at the shop, will bring in return customers.
“The hope is that people will see the long-term damage [Amazon and other online retailers] can do to the local economy,” he said. “You just have to try to engage with people, be friendly and be part of that community. It’s been awesome to see people go out on weekends like this and support small businesses.”
Shoreham to Mount Sinai
Game On, 465 Route 25A, Miller Place
Tristan Whitworth, the owner of video game shop Game On in Miller Place said his business did well the days after Thanksgiving, this year seeing a 30 percent increase in customers compared to last year. He attracted customers with select sales of up to 60 percent off specific products, which incentivized people to come in and spend time on the few video game consoles he set up around the shop.
“It’s making sure the customer knows that we’re there to give them a good shopping experience,” Whitworth said. “I always try to keep it so that it’s not about customers rushing in to make a sale. People were there for an hour or two even though it was Black Friday.”
Whitworth said he knows there is a huge market for used video games online, but he always tries to make his business about the customer service.
“You can get every single thing we sell online, so it’s really about having the experience of going to the shop and buying stuff, talk to the guy who owns it about what game you should buy or try out,” he said. “That’s what you need.”
Sweets & Scoops, 99 Route 25A, Shoreham
While Maria Williams, owner of dessert haven Sweets & Scoops, said most of her business occurs just before holidays, rather than afterward, but she was pleased with the sales she had for people ordering custom chocolate arrangements and other party favors.
She said she sees the importance of local business as a means of giving vitality to an area.
“People need to stop shopping on Amazon,” Williams said. “If they stay local and shop local in small business we do well, and we can hire more people.”
The sweets shop owner said the best product she and other small businesses can offer people is something unique. She said she tries her best to make items customized for the individual, products that one cannot get anywhere else.
“It’s eight years now that I’ve been in business and thank god it became a success because of its uniqueness,” Williams said. “[Large corporations] don’t have that extra touch, and everything is so commercial with them. Here no two things are ever alike.”
The Gift Corner, 157 N. Country Road, Mount Sinai
Bernholz said last year’s Black Friday weekend was one of the busiest in years, with lines going out the door of her small North Country Road gift shop. This year was also good for her business.
“We did well on Friday, but Saturday was awesome,” Bernholz said. “It was very packed all day, and so many people came in that are my regulars — really showing their loyalty.”
Bernholz business has been around for close to 30 years, but she said she is not very active on the internet, nor is she proficient with technology in general. She still relies on her dedicated customers, some of whom bought holiday gifts from her as kids and continue to buy them as adults.
Her dedicated customers even advertise for her. The Gift Corner has signs along Route 25A promoting her shop, but it was one put up for free, without even originally letting Bernholz know they were there.
“I don’t advertise, I have never advertised,” she said. “A customer does that on their own … It’s unbelievable.”