Black Friday and Cyber Monday will soon be upon us. But what about Small Business Saturday? Taking place in the U.K. on December 2nd, it’s an annual event designed to encourage small businesses to shout about what they do, while prompting the rest of us to consider shopping or purchasing locally.
This is the time of the year when Black Friday marketing goes into overdrive. Open your mailbox and you’ll find it groaning under the weight of special offers. The same is true of social media, television and the press. Black Friday ads are everywhere. There is no escape.
So here’s the question. Taking place just a few days after this media blitz, can Small Business Saturday really provide a platform for SMEs to make their voices heard? I spoke to Michelle Ovens, CEO of both Small Business Saturday and Small Business Britain to find out.
Retail Sector Gloom
Describing itself as a grass-roots, non-commercial activity, Small Business Saturday has been running in the United Kingdom for eleven years. This year’s event is taking place against a backdrop of continuing economic uncertainty. In the retail sector, sales were down slightly year-on-year in October following a much sharper dip of 1.1 percent in the previous month. Meanwhile, Inflation – the scourge of the retail sector – came in at 4.7 percent in October, sharply down from the previous month but still well above an optimal level.
All the more reason perhaps for the big names to focus on shifting stock by pushing Black Friday deals, but as Ovens points out, discounting is not something that smaller local retailers can afford to do.
“Don’t get involved in Black Friday. It doesn’t help small businesses,” she says. It is mostly for big businesses. Small businesses can’t do the big discount thing.”
Indeed, discounting to drive a few extra sales would be counterproductive, she argues, as main focus for most consumer-facing SMEs is to maximize revenues over the peak Christmas period to provide a necessary financial cushion for the quieter times of the year.
So how can small businesses take advantage of Small Business Saturday?
Well, there are some marketing benefits. The organization invites small businesses of all kinds – not just retailers – to register on its business finder website and will also provide a range of marketing materials and support. A nationwide tour – in partnership with BT (British Telecom) offers further marketing opportunities plus workshops and mentoring. Also supporting the initiative, American Express is offering cash back on purchases from small companies.
Ovens says small businesses should take the opportunity to promote themselves at a time when a national campaign is drawing attention to what they do. “There’s a lot to be said for small businesses telling their stories,” she says.
So what does that mean in practice? After all, a local shop, or perhaps a small manufacturer or web design agency won’t necessarily have a big marketing budget. “You can talk to local media,” says Ovens. “Or get your message out on social media.
That may not be as simple as it sounds. Yes, social media offers free publicity and a means to engage with potential customers but only if you do it well. That requires not only a certain amount of savvy regarding the way social media works but also time – a commodity that is often in short supply. The same is true of cultivating links with local media outlets and coming up with angles that journalists can use.
The marketing support provided by Small Business Saturday can help, but Ovens suggests that companies can also spread the marketing load by working with others. “You can club together with your neighbors,” she adds.
This could mean actively promoting each other’s businesses or collaborating to organize special events. “You can share the marketing and share the costs,” Ovens adds.
More fundamentally, collaborating with peers also provides a means for businesses to break out of their own bubbles and talk to others about common problems and how they can be solved.
It can sometimes feel like you’re the only person facing particular challenges,” says Ovens. “So it’s helpful to talk to others. So find a tribe of people you can just chat with. There are a lot of networking groups.”
Give Customers A Call To Action
Ultimately though, in order to boost sales, small businesses have to engage new customers. Ovens says existing customers can play a part through the power of advocacy. “You should encourage your existing customers to share their experience, Ask them to tell their friends. Give your audience a call to action.”
And Ovens argues that small businesses tend to generate positive sentiment. They are local. They offer a personalized service, complete with advice about the products they sell. They know they have to maintain a loyal customer base and that feeds through to superior levels of service. They go the extra mile. “And that’s the case whether you’re a web designer or a window cleaner,” says Ovens.
Initiatives, such as Small Business Saturdays are not silver bullets, but they do serve to remind customers of the importance of their local traders. The challenge for SMEs is to use the opportunities created by raised awareness to tell their own stories.
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