A woman walked into Bloomsbury Lane Toy Shoppe in Lancaster last Christmas, almost in tears.
She had spent several hours wandering aimlessly through a big box store, trying to find presents for children on her list. She had gotten nowhere and was feeling overwhelmed.
Crystal Newman welcomed the woman into her toy store, took her coat, and gave her a glass of wine. Newman helped her pick three hot toys, then gift-wrapped them for her and sent her on her merry way.
"We just kind of swooped in for her and made it a pleasant experience," Newman said.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what small, locally owned merchants are all about.
They will emphasize that connection today on Small Business Saturday. It is the day independent merchants show their stuff. They do their best to convince consumers to ditch the malls and big boxes, step away from their computers and return to the mom-and-pop shops in their neighborhoods, hopefully for good.
Brick-and-mortar retailers are chasing the prevailing business strategy right now. Make shopping in your local store an experience. Drive sales by making your store a destination. Give customers something in person that they can't get online.
But small local shops tend to be naturally experience-oriented. Independent stores are often run by their owners, who lavish personal attention on their customers and will go the extra mile to keep a customer happy.
O'Connell's clothing on Main Street will embroider a buffalo on your buttondown. Matt's Music in North Tonawanda will dig out an autoharp and teach you how to tune it. Runner's Roost will analyze your gait to find your best sneaker. And Abstract Wealth in the Queen City Pop-Up will paint your shoes to match your dress while you wait.
"People will ask, 'Do you do this or that?' " said London Smith of Wrapped in Love Jewelry. "If they want it, I'm gonna try it."
They cut a stark contrast to crowded, understaffed chain stores and department stores that no longer give out shirt boxes, let alone wrap purchases.
Mom and pop shops also have a built-in nostalgia factor, transporting shoppers back to a time of quaint store window displays and relaxed browsing, days when Christmas shopping was a diversion, not a stressful task.
"People don't just come to our shop and go home," said Newman at Bloomsbury Lane Toy Shoppe. "They go to the chocolate shop next door, they go to the New York Store across the street. They go catch a show at the Opera House."
But local merchants aren't resting on their laurels. They're doing everything to enhance the shop-local experience.
Some stores stock fridges with complimentary beer and wine. Others hand-pass champagne and hors d'oeuvres, hold pop-up events with other vendors or host private shopping parties. And at Christmas time, stores pull out all the stops.
Local shopping districts host events throughout the season. Hertel Avenue will have a tree lighting 6 p.m. Thursday and offer milk and cookies with Santa from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 2 at Start with Sleep, 1211 Hertel Ave. The Lumber City Winter Walk in North Tonawanda will have a shuttle, ukulele concert and a Santa's gift workshop for children, among many other events. Downtown Medina will have its annual Olde Tyme Christmas and Parade of Lights.
The Small Business Saturday movement started in 2010 as a marketing tool by American Express, which gave cash back to cardholders who shopped at independent stores. The credit card company still heavily promotes the event and gives marketing packages to small merchants, supplying such things as tote bags and signs. Though American Express still holds a registered trademark on the name Small Business Saturday, the concept has grown far and wide, to the point that most people aren't aware of its origin.
Small Business Saturday has become a lifeline for small retailers, who can make 50 percent or more of their total annual sales during the Christmas season.
Last year was the most successful Small Business Saturday yet, with 112 million people choosing small retailers over strip malls across the country, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses.