American Express Co. is largely viewed as an upscale charge card company, but it’s increasingly on the pulse of what’s going on with small business.
With the holidays approaching, AmEx will focus on small merchants who’ll take in billions of dollars in sales charged on American Express cards. Susan Sobbott, who heads the company’s small-business operation, American Express Open, says that based on what she’s seeing, the holidays might not be the most robust for small retailers, but stores should show sales gains compared with last year.
AmEx started its small-business operation in 1987 as American Express Small Business Services, and in 2002 renamed it American Express Open. Sobbott, in her job since 2004, oversees several programs. Best known is Small Business Saturday, a campaign designed to get consumers to shop at independent retailers and other small businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
In Charlotte, small retailers such as The Boulevard at South End boutique make a point to offer customers something special on Small Business Saturday.
“We had a successful Small Business Saturday last year, so we’re really amped up that American Express, and really the whole country is getting behind it again this year,” said co-owner Jennifer Branham, who said the shop will be serving cookies and hot chocolate for customers on Nov. 30.
“Last year, we saw a 50 percent increase in sales,” she said. “So we’re hoping that everybody comes out and supports us once again this year.”
Sobbott spoke recently with The Associated Press about AmEx and small businesses. Here are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. How are retailers feeling as the holiday season approaches?
A. I think there is cautious optimism. I think retailers are going in with a great deal of focus on how to drive traffic to their doors. I think they’re trying to be as smart as they can in terms of how to get the word out about their particular business. They have their eyes open about the obstacles – in fact, this season, there are five fewer shopping days than last season because Thanksgiving is so late. All this is factoring into retailers’ thinking about the holiday season. We may not have the most robust holiday season we’ve ever seen, but I do think it will show an increase over last year.
Q. What are you doing differently for Small Business Saturday?
A. We’re trying to make the program, while it’s run on a national scale, feel very relevant at a local and neighborhood level. We’ve created a program that we call an ambassador program. We’ve recruited leaders around the country to organize a bunch of retailers, or work with their chamber of commerce to have specific events of their own. We have over 1,000 communities that have enrolled. For consumers, we will have a $10 credit for spending that day at a small business, including retailers, restaurants and consumer services.
Q. It was $25 in previous years. Why change it?
A. We made the change because we want more consumers to participate in Small Business Saturday. By making the credit $10, we have research that shows consumer will be equally likely to shop in a small business with $10 as they were at $25. But we can get many more consumers to do that. Our investment in Small Business Saturday will be constant; it will still be a multimillion investment.
Q. What’s your sense of how small businesses, and in particular, small retailers, are doing?
A. Small businesses today in general are healthier than their ancestors because they’ve survived the recession, the demands of cost-cutting and ambivalent if not reticent consumers. Are they feeling the pain of a very rocky economy, an economy that has yet to determine its path? Absolutely. What we do see is the retailers in general among our customers are very optimistic.
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