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Shops pivot for Small Business Saturday amid pandemic

Shoppers leave Mint in Locust Valley ahead of

Shoppers leave Mint in Locust Valley ahead of small business Saturday. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Online retail is taking a record chunk of the holiday shopping pie this year, but mom-and-pop businesses are still counting on Small Business Saturday to deliver big at a critical time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented business losses this year, as stores in New York State deemed nonessential were forced by government mandates to close for several months, starting in March, to help stop the spread of the virus.

Now, small shops on Saturday are touting their assets – personalized customer service, unique merchandise, expanded discounts and upgraded websites – for their busiest weekend of the year, owners said.

"It’s huge. It’s always a really busy day for us. Black Friday and Small Business Saturday are usually on par. … Sometimes Small Business Saturday is busier," said Joanna Mazzella, who co-owns with her husband a retail company, Mint, a Mattituck-based women’s clothing chain with five boutiques on Long Island.

Black Friday weekend is typically the busiest weekend of the fourth quarter for Mint, she said.

The retailer is offering the biggest holiday discounts in its history and it has extended them beyond Black Friday and Small Business Saturday for the first time – 20% off from last Wednesday through Cyber Monday, in addition to 25% off a purchase of at least $250 and 30% off a purchase of at least $400.

Also, Mint is benefiting from revamping its website in June to handle more traffic, and it changed the types of clothes it carries to add more comfy, casual apparel, which is what appeals to customers who are working from home during the pandemic, Mazzella said.

"Do I have fancy dresses in the store right now? Absolutely not," she said.

A campaign launched by American Express in 2010, Small Business Saturday is to independent retailers what Black Friday is to large-chain stores, local retailers and business officials say.

American consumers spent $19.6 billion at independent retailers and restaurants on Small Business Saturday in 2019, compared with 107 million who spent $17.8 billion in 2018, according to the 2019 Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey conducted on behalf of American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business.

One of the biggest challenges for small businesses is that while they were closed for several months as nonessential businesses during the pandemic, their customers shifted their shopping habits to large chains that were allowed to remain open because they sold food, medication and other essential products, said Sonia Lapinsky, managing director of the retail practice at AlixPartners, a Manhattan-based consulting firm.

And those large chains offered convenience, such as e-commerce sites and curbside pickup, she said.

"Small businesses have an even bigger challenge this year because they have to get those customers back," Lapinsky said.

In celebration of Small Business Saturday, local chambers of commerce and other organizations across Long Island and nationwide annually organized community events in business districts that included visits from Santa, storefront decorating contests, prize giveaways, Christmas tree lightings, live entertainment and store promotions.

But the COVID-19 pandemic that took so much from retailers is taking another swipe this weekend, as most of those events have been canceled as part of social distancing efforts to help stop the spread of the virus.

Huntington has nixed its annual holiday parade that would have been held on Small Business Saturday. Instead, it will have a Huntington Holiday Spectacular, a five-week program of nightly events that kicked off Friday and "will include lights, music and surprises" on Wall Street until Jan. 3, said Vita Scaturro, chairwoman of the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce.

"I think it will attract more people, people will shop more local, and I think it will be an advantage to the businesses," she said.

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