For the last five years, American Express has championed its Small Business Saturday campaign the day after Black Friday, an attempt to get shoppers to refocus their attention on small local businesses. But this year, it quietly dropped a credit it gave to shoppers who participated (the amounts varied, but it was $30 last year).
Amex confirmed that it halted the incentives and said that it had replaced the cash with other program elements. Amex spokesperson Sravanthi Agrawal listed some of what they are doing instead of issuing the credits.
“We’re providing more tools for small business owners to create relevant events and their own promotions/offers for shoppers in their community,” Agrawal said. “We are also significantly expanding our grassroots advocacy efforts, such as the Neighborhood Champion program, who organize community events and activities to engage local communities. We’ll also continue to support Small Business Saturday and encourage people to shop small through local and national advertising.”
Another Amex spokesperson, Amber Harper, said in a phone interview that the card brand chose to “shift resources to help business owners more.” Over the last five years, the value of those incentive credits ranged from $15 to $30, she said. Last year, for example, the limit was $10 for each small business where a purchase is made, with a limit of three businesses, for a total of $30, Harper said.
The small business initiative is a very good idea, but when trying to persuade shoppers to change their retail habits, there is little—nay, there is nothing—more effective than a direct cash credit. No number of Neighborhood Campion programs or community events is going to be nearly as persuasive as a $30 credit going directly to the shopper.
In a news release that Amex issued touting the effectiveness of this campaign, Amex may have hinted at the real reason for the change. “This year, more shoppers reported visiting their local independent businesses on Small Business Saturday than ever before, according to results from the Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey, released today by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and American Express,” that statement said. “More than 95 million consumers shopped at small businesses on Small Business Saturday, marking an eight percent increase from 2014.”
Every year, the dollar value of the incentive increased at the same time that the number of consumers participating also increased. This meant two things: First, that the program seemed to be working. Two, those incentives were getting to be expensive and this year would likely be worse.
But this is a powerful investment and it needs to now be increased, not reduced. With a few exceptions in technology-comfortable sections of major urban areas (think San Francisco, Boston, Manhattan, Austin, Seattle), the mobile payment tidal wave (Ok, a kiddie-pool-level tidal wave) is sweeping right past small businesses.
Those mobile wallets are going to be climbing over each other next year to offer the most germane coupons and direct incentives. Small businesses need these direct financial incentives much more now than before and they’ll need them in 2016 more than now. Please, Amex, reconsider.