Small Business Battles for Shoppers' Attention in Sales-Filled Holiday Season

New program offers shoppers $25 incentive to shop at independent retailers

Even in a place full of big block retailers like Herald Square, there are small businesses who must compete to survive. And the city's trying to help independent merchants by pioneering a new program on the weekend between two of the busiest shopping days of the year.

For Diamonds and Dials, a longstanding reputation -- 50 years in business -- helps keeps customers coming. But with no advertising budget it's tough to get the word out to patrons that, just like the massive retailers that line Manhattan streets, they have sales, too.

"The biggest challenge is getting them into the store," said Diamonds & Dials owner Jimmy Tarzy.

Just east on 34th Street, Smart Toys faces the same challenge.

"Just trying to get the community to understand that we are here" is an ongoing battle, explains Smart Toys' Tom Keenan.

That's where the concept of Small Business Saturday comes in. American Express is offering a platform for these Mom & Pop stores to get some attention while at the same time giving customers $25 back for shopping at an independent retailer.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault launched the plan earlier this month.

More than 1.1 million Facebook users like the idea and it became the top trend on Google, particularly among shoppers in the city.

As one out-of-town browser, Tricia Adams, said, the best deals are "at the smaller shops.

The challenge for small business owners, then, has been how to advertise and organize that message.

It's tough for small businesses to stand out in a crowd during the holiday rush, especially because it's difficult to find out which business is offering what type of deal, but soon even that may change.

Small business websites like the 3/50 Project may soon offer a search engine that highlights nearby small businesses and even allows potential customers to browse for deals.

"Now that we have a sponsor on board, we can begin to grow and put those tools in place for consumers to more easily find who those independents are," said Cinda Baxter, founder of the 3/50 Project.

Tarzy says the economy does appear to be improving, but customers are still careful about how and where they spend, so he hopes Small Business Saturday will encourage shoppers to step inside his store.

"It's been busy so far today and people appear to be using their credit cards," Tarzy said.

The actual nationwide small business sales numbers won't be available for a few days, but thus far, experts seem to support the idea that people are ready to do some serious shopping at smaller outlets.

Both Bloomberg and Chenault appear committed to ensuring the success of independent retailers over the long haul.

"It's not a flash in the pan,'' Chenault said in announcing Small Business Saturday. He added that American Express was "committed to this effort for years to come.''

The mayor also lauded the value of small businesses, calling them "the backbone of our economy and the glue that holds communities together."

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