A band marched through the center of Hamburg. Santa danced on Main Street in East Aurora. More than 100 fire trucks paraded through the Village of Lancaster.
Communities throughout the region on Saturday offered a counterpoint to the harried crowds and long lines of corporate retail as they sought to lure people in with special events. Parades, tree-lighting ceremonies and raffles were just a few of the strategies community leaders and store owners employed to strengthen local business districts.
Village Artisans on Main Street in Williamsville offered shopping totes and gift wrapping. Sue Ganey put out gingersnaps near the register at Snippets & Gems in Hamburg. Jane Bell brought in two local authors at her children’s bookstore, B is for Books, in Orchard Park.
It’s all part of the extra touches small shop owners say they must do to compete with big box retailers and online sales.
“If we literally just opened our doors and said, ‘We’re selling books,’ we would have been out of business by now,” said Bell, who offers story times and children’s birthday parties to compete throughout the year. “We have to do events to bring people in.”
Local business owners on Saturday took advantage of a marketing effort, “Small Business Saturday,” started by American Express to support individual retailers. The credit card company promotes local shopping with commercials and ready-made marketing materials that include suggestions for creating a buzz on social media.
Small Business Saturday is just one of a series of events from now until Christmas that communities have organized to create crowds and get people walking in business districts throughout Western New York. In Lancaster, the annual Christmasville celebration kicked off Saturday night with a fire truck parade to benefit the Greater Lancaster Museum of Firefighting. The Williamsville Business Association will offer Holiday in the Village next Saturday. Stores will stay open late Friday for the Hertel Holiday Walk in Buffalo. In Hamburg, customers will have until Dec. 20 to fill a book with stamps from local stores for a chance to win prizes.
Store owners say the call to “shop small” is beginning to sink in with many customers.
“People more and more appreciate local, and they get that the money stays in the community more,” said Debbie Steinbruckner, owner of Village Artisans. “Here, it really stays, because it’s going to local artists. It doesn’t just stay in my pocket. It goes in the artists’ pockets and they pay rent and they buy their groceries.”
Like many small local stores, Village Artisans offers merchandise that customers can’t find online – locally made art and gifts. But small stores that compete with large retailers say they have other ways to gain an advantage.
At Blue Hill Kitchen & Home on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, store owner Deanna Meyers said some product lines, such as Wusthof Knives, offer promotions specially designed for gourmet stores that aren’t available online or at big retailers. The store also focuses on individualized service for customers.
“We have the product knowledge and we’re available,” Meyers said. “You’re not running around aisles and 20,000 square feet looking for someone to help you.”
Linda Coletti, whose family has owned the Toy Loft in East Aurora for 35 years, said she searches trade magazines and shows for gifts and toys that customers wouldn’t find at Walmart and Target. She also offers gift wrapping and hands-on play for children to try out toys.
“I hope to offer an experience, more than just grab and go,” Colleti said. “A nice experience where they find the perfect gift and they leave happy.”
Small-business owners – who say holiday sales can account for a third or more of their business – also have to deal with shoppers who use their stores to try on or see merchandise but then turn to online shopping to actually purchase the items.
Bell, owner of B is for Books in Orchard Park, said that has worked both ways.
“People have just been blatant about it,” Bell said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m just getting some ideas, but then I’m going to order it from Amazon,’ and you say, ‘Really?’ But then we get other people who will call and say, ‘I looked up these books on Amazon, can you get them for me?’ ”
At Gear for Adventure in Hamburg, owners Sarah and Kevin Beckwith rely on their ties to the community and their outdoor sports expertise to keep customers buying local.
“Sometimes, it’s just about getting them to understand that we live in the community,” Sarah Beckwith said. “We spend our money in the community.”