Mikel Conrad grew up in Southern Nevada in the 1970s when Water Street was the Henderson community's go-to retail destination, filled with mom and pop businesses that eventually all but disappeared.
Now as president of the Water Street District Business Association, Conrad works with local establishments promoting what sets the area apart from homogenous big-box centers – a tall order during the holidays when consumers race to malls or their smartphones to shop.
"Water Street itself is the only historic main street in Southern Nevada that's still active," says Conrad, who also owns Mikel's Photography & Design.
For five years, Conrad has participated as a local “neighborhood champion” promoting Water Street as a destination for Small Business Saturday, American Express’ nationwide program held annually the day after Black Friday.
"With Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it's all these megastores that have been around for [decades] with deep pockets for marketing,” Conrad says. "Our goal is to get businesses here and help the businesses here thrive."
Henderson expo launches
This year the Water Street association is hosting the first annual Shop Small Henderson, a coordinating expo on Small Business Saturday that shares the same goals: drawing attention to mom and pop shops and help drive the local economy in Nevada's second-largest city.
From 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Nov. 25, Shop Small Henderson plans to have over 50 local vendors, arts and crafts, food trucks, a food drive for the Serving Our Kids Foundation and an official drop-off point for Toys for Tots donations. The citywide initiative anticipates 2,000-3,000 people will come out for the inaugural event.
Small Business Saturday was created in 2010 as a way of promoting independently-owned local businesses, boost local economies and preserve neighborhoods around the country.
Since then the "shop local" alternative to Black Friday and Cyber Monday has grown considerably. Shop owners who opt in can access free materials on how to better market their businesses and/or take a more involved role boosting their local district as neighborhood champions.
In 2016, more than 6,700 small businesses and organizations across the country signed up to be neighborhood champions, a 63 percent increase from 2015.
According to the National Federation of Independent Business, 112 million customers nationwide reported shopping at a small business on Small Business Saturday, up 13 percent from 2015.
"Black Friday and Cyber Monday get so much attention, which tends to be all big-dollar stores," says Randi Thompson, the Nevada director for the federation, or NFIB. "We want to tell people, 'In the mix of that, also remember your local small business owners who help our community be better places to live and reinvest their revenue locally.'"
Thompson says there are 1,800 NFIB members in Nevada. In Las Vegas – where the idea of shopping tends to be dominated by tourist-focused malls on the Strip, outlet malls and big-box chains – locally owned small businesses don't have nearly the same visibility.
"Las Vegas has a lot of little strip malls and shopping centers nestled in between those big box stores, and that's where you find the mom and pop shops," Thompson says.
Independent retailers don’t have the same marketing and buying power as big-box chains, which is why Small Business Saturday was developed: to take a day during the holiday spending madness to highlight and promote small businesses.
"People recognize that Small Business Saturday is not quite Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” Conrad says. “It's more of a grassroots effort."
Conrad says this year many Water Street businesses are neighborhood champions, which means they’ll offer a discount on Saturday. Most past participants in Henderson say they’ve seen a positive impact on sales although some area businesses choose not to participate.
Other local retailers in the Vegas area who’ve participated in past Small Business Saturday say they didn’t see a noticeable impact on sales.
Surviving and thriving on their own
Mary Dramise, owner of the Paper Bunny scrapbooking store in southeast Las Vegas, says that while she did a swift business last year – over 100 people came through the door and 78 purchases made that day when a typical day sees only a handful – that had more to do with her own outreach efforts to her existing customers.
Still, on Saturday, Nov. 25, Dramise plans on offering a variety of free make-and-takes for people to come in and play with the products, as well as a year-round coupon book only available that day.
"People [came out last year] because they know me in the scrapbooking world and liked all the promotions," she says. "Are they coming out specifically to support Small Business Saturday? No, but it would be great if that were the case."
Lizzy Newsome of Kappa Toys, a toy store that started in Downtown Container Park and recently opened a second location at the LINQ Promenade, plans on only running Small Business Saturday promotions at her original Container Park location.
"We don't want to take the conversation away from Container Park since it has the highest concentration of small businesses in Las Vegas," she explains. "We encourage everyone to come check out Container Park since there aren't that many areas here with a concentration of small businesses."
In her years at Container Park Newsome says she has seen an effort by locals to shop at Container Park on Small Business Saturday, even though it’s in a touristy area.
"Small Business Saturday is a really a great way to change the conversation about [independent retail],” Newsome says. “Customers don’t understand the difference between small businesses and chains. People come in on Black Friday asking about sales, but they don't understand that small businesses don’t have the buying ability or the discounting ability that major chains have."
Kappa Toys will be one of many small businesses in Container Park offering specials on Small Business Saturday.
For the past few years, Container Park has turned Small Business Saturday into a park-wide event, complete with live entertainment, activities for kids, special in-store promotions at all participating businesses, and drawings for $100 "Container Park Bucks" gift certificates.
"We started off as a place for mom and pop shops and small businesses to launch themselves and their brands," explains Kristine Reynolds, general manager of Container Park. "Small Business Saturday is a great fit for us because this is what we do. We want to promote small businesses in Container Park."
Whether customers choose to shop small on Small Business Saturday out of concern for their local economy or just because the deals are good, small businesses say having their own dedicated day during the holiday spending frenzy can only help in Southern Nevada where local business owners struggle to carve out a niche.
"If people do more purchasing at small businesses, they will see a greater boost in the local economy,” Conrad says. “Small businesses give more to the community in terms of paying taxes to support schools, giving to local charities, and creating local jobs."