Minnesota small businesses go big for the holidays | Crain's Twin Cities

Minnesota small businesses go big for the holidays

The historic riverside town of Stillwater has long strategized to charm holiday shoppers away from big retailers. | Photo courtesy of DiscoverStillwater.com.

Small businesses in Minnesota aren’t necessarily settling for small profits over Black Friday weekend these days.

In fact, many are fighting tooth and nail for their piece of the holiday pie during the busiest shopping weekend of the year. And they’re making that happen in creative ways.

In several cases, small businesses are able to target a different audience than either e-commerce businesses or big box stores: customers who enjoy brick-and-mortar shopping but are disenchanted with pushy, competitive shoppers and overwhelming crowds. And the small businesses are going far beyond in-store discounts, cheap coffee and a plate of Christmas cookies to draw customers; they’re capitalizing on different strategies, promoting themselves as fun places to socialize, experience culture, give back to the community, support the livelihoods of local business owners — or all of the above.

“For the past five or six years, [local shops have] really embraced the Small Business Saturday piece and have realized they can really connect well with local customers,” says Bruce Nustad, president of the Minnesota Retailers Association. “Now they’re extending that into Black Friday. They tend to be really good at maintaining a database of customers, so they’re at a unique advantage.”

On Small Business Saturday alone, some 112 million customers nationwide patronized small independent businesses last year, a 13 percent increase from the previous year. Small-business customers spent a jolly $15.4 billion in 2016, though that was down from the $16.2 billion they laid out in 2015.

In Minnesota, Nustad says, many consumers spread out their weekend shopping among national, regional and local retailers to cherry-pick both the deep discounts and the indie charm. He says he sees no particular demographic veering toward local stores.

“Minnesotans are loyal to our retailers, but I think our loyalty really goes across all three sectors,” he notes. “We all love a deal. We still have a large number of coupon-clippers in the state.”

Fun, festive and not so frantic

With more than 100 independent businesses, the historic riverside burg of Stillwater has long strategized to charm holiday shoppers away from big retailers. In efforts led by nonprofits the Stillwater MainStreet IBA and Discover Stillwater, the seven weekends prior to New Year’s Day are jam-packed with mostly free attractions such as costumed carolers, live music, appearances by Santa and his reindeer, horse-drawn wagon rides, a tree-lighting ceremony and a lit-up Twinkle Parade for kids.

Other full-out festivals staged by towns that weekend include the annual Christkindlsmarkt in Excelsior, a three-day event celebrating German culture with a parade, a beer garden, ethnic food vendors, an entertainment center for kids and an open-air market to draw attention to local vendors. The Light up the Lake celebration in Wayzata similarly offers a tree-lighting ceremony, parade, candy-cane hunt, live reindeer, wagon rides, music and photos with Santa — all aimed at directing dollars to area retailers.

Even chain-store mecca Edina is doing its part to support its small businesses; a winter market in the 50th and France area each year features wares from local artists, tree lighting and caroling, plus a fully staffed drop-off center that entertains and feeds kids while their parents shop.

For some vendors, the weekend’s strategy focuses on opportunities simply to relax and socialize. For example, some 25 artisans affiliated with the traveling Minneapolis Craft Market will sell handmade wares and gourmet foods on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving outside the Minneapolis brewery Sociable Cider Werks.

“Ditch the mall and party with us instead,” the event website urges. Craft Market founder Hayley Matthews-Jones explains the third-annual version of the event will feature live music, new cider releases, a bonfire and food vendors. Typical patrons include young couples and families seeking entertainment for out-of-town guests, she says, noting attendance has grown each year.

“We get a little bit of the inner-city Northeast kind of indie crowd — people who care about the shopping-local aspect,” Matthews-Jones notes. “They’re reluctant [traditional] shoppers, I would say. With our event, they get fresh air and work off their turkey dinners.” 

Other independent vendors take the tack of tweaking their hours to divert trade. On the north side of Minneapolis, some 35 small businesses are staying open late to try to capture weekend shoppers Friday evening after they have hit the Mall of America and/or big-box stores. Food vendors, live entertainment, kids’ activities and giveaways will be organized by co-sponsors the Northside Economic Opportunity Network and the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, and a local art show and after-party might still be in the works.

“Go home, take a nap, then come shop on Broadway,” NEON Program Director Anisha Murphy suggests. “We’re highlighting entrepreneurs who actually make their own product and sell it. There are so many cultural things that go on in north Minneapolis that never really get [noted].”

Some analysts believe small businesses will be even better positioned to grab their share of Black Friday weekend bucks as e-commerce ramps up, deep discounts become available year-round and consumers remain wary of battling the crowds.

Others say the over-the-top, crazy-discount, mad-scramble big-box tradition is here to stay.

“Minnesotans love a deal, and I think Black Friday [offers] the epitome of a deal,” Nustad says. “I do see Black Friday deals extending out and beyond [the present time frame]. Nevertheless, there’s still only one Black Friday, one Small Business Saturday and one Cyber Monday, and I still see retailers catering to that.” 

November 9, 2017 - 11:04am