American Express's Small Business Saturday
I’ve avoided writing about Black Friday this year. In the community I follow, promoting the day after Thanksgiving for shopping has gotten completely out of hand. I wrote an article for PC World a few years ago, The Insider’s Guide to Black Friday Bargains, where the tips are still relevant for today’s shoppers. I’m not going to write a new article every year about how to find the best Black Friday deals.
As if Black Friday weren’t enough of a marketing scheme, a few years ago consumers were blessed to receive Cyber Monday, yet another day of hype encouraging people to buy more. I’m not always anti-consumerism, but I just find every year’s increased holiday sale hype, designed as a last-ditch, end-of-year effort to make up for poor sales since January 1, annoying. Doorbusters, bait-and-switch, and worst of all, and crazed Wal-Mart shoppers who are willing to kill others just to be first to grab some sale item that will be worth a tiny portion of its sale price in five months, make me embarrassed to be an American consumer.
The opposite approach is to put faith in Buy Nothing Day. The message of Buy Nothing Day is good, but like any temporary boycott, it just time-shifts spending; what you don’t spend on the day after Thanksgiving you’ll likely spend the next day. And if a sale expires, you’ll spend more.
The worst thing to come out of the holiday hype is “Small Business Saturday.” (Let’s just stop naming the days following Thanksgiving, also known as Turkey Thursday.) This is American Express’s effort to get consumers to patronize local stores in favor of national chains. On the surface, this isn’t a bad idea. Support business owners in the community by visiting smaller retail establishments who otherwise have a difficult time competing with large box stores like Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot. Your neighborhood appliance or hardware store generally charge more money for the same products offered by national chains because small stores have little leverage to negotiate with wholesalers. Working with a small business based in the community you live, having a friendly face who can help answer your questions, and building a relationship with a business owner might be strong enough reasons to settle for a higher priced item.
This is coming from American Express. Many small business owners simply can’t afford to accept payments using American Express cards. It costs more money for a retailer to accept most American Express cards than most Visa or MasterCard credit cards. When you do use your American Express cards at a small business, you are not helping the store as much as you would if you were to pay with cash. American Express interchange fees can take an unhealthy bite out of a small business’s profits. Also, unlike Visa and MasterCard, who generally split merchant fees with banks that issue their cards, American Express cards are generally not issued by third parties, and the company keeps the entire interchange fee.
The “Small Business Saturday” campaign was not created for the good of the overall economy. American Express offers this message, “The 2nd annual Small Business Saturday® is a day dedicated to supporting small businesses on one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year,” but the day supports American Express, which is not a small business. Through this campaign, American Express is offering small businesses that accept their cards to prominently display an advertisement that offers a $25 credit to any customer who uses an American Express card to purchase items totaling $25 or more at the location. There is little in this campaign other than self-interest and self-promotion on American Express’s part.
Is this bad? It’s hard to say. If you want to do your part to support local businesses that are in danger of closing partly due to the high prices credit card companies charge, shop there but pay cash. Forget about the 1% cash back or less you can earn, paid for by the small business owners. The $25 credit in the offer doesn’t support small businesses because this isn’t extra money that can be used to purchase more in a store. It’s a statement credit, designed to thank card holders for using American Express and requiring retailers that accept the cards to pay more to AmEx through fees.
American Express is, thanks to capitalism, allowed to promote almost anything it likes in order to increase profit. That’s how corporations compete, build value for shareholders, and help upper middle class households stay upper middle class and wealthy households increase their wealth. The company reports that small businesses saw an increase in sales due to last year’s Small Business Saturday campaign (but note that they didn’t see the same large increase in profits). Look past the marketing messages at who is most benefiting from this campaign.
When the sun goes supernova and engulfs the Earth, marketers will promote the event as the hottest party since the big bang.