NEW YORK -- The parades and carnivals that draw people to downtown areas across the country this holiday season will be more than big celebrations. They're part of a strategy to get shoppers into small stores.
LaGrange's decades-old holiday festival has evolved into more of a sales promotion event in recent years, says Nancy Cummings, executive director of the LaGrange Business Association. This year's will be held Saturday, Dec. 7, and 66 businesses have so far signed up to take part.
Stores will have open houses, with many giving customers $5 off a $25 purchase. Trolleys will transport shoppers to shops that aren't part of the downtown cluster, and on the way point out retailers along the route. There'll be ice sculptures outside stores to lure shoppers to the front door. And there will be the holiday standards like a petting zoo and Santa arriving on a fire truck. Shoppers will have plenty to do across the village located west of Chicago.
"We want to get people moving around," Cummings says.
Many shoppers are familiar with Small Business Saturday, the American Express campaign to encourage people to buy from independent retailers and other small businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving. But a growing number of chambers of commerce, small business organizations and local retailer groups hold events to persuade shoppers to forsake malls, big-box stores like Wal-Mart and the Internet in favor of local retailers. They also advertise on joint Facebook pages and recommend shoppers visit other stores in town.
Retailers in Royal Oak, Mich., are holding a series of events that began last Friday. That night, stores stayed open until midnight and offered special prices and refreshments, much like the come-ons Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving -- is known for. The Saturday after Thanksgiving will be "Shop Local Saturday." On Sundays during the holidays, many restaurants will have free meals for children. And Dec. 11, retailers will set up shop at the Royal Oak Farmers Market. There will be music, food trucks and gifts.
The efforts make a difference. Small businesses in communities with "buy local" campaigns had an 8.6 increase in sales in 2012 from the previous year, according to the American Independent Business Alliance, a network of community business organizations. In communities without campaigns, sales rose 3.4 percent.
The alliance and several other nationwide small business organizations sponsor a Shift Your Shopping campaign aimed at getting consumers to do their holiday buying in their communities. The program, in its third year, now includes 150 local business alliances and 40,000 small businesses.
The economy's plunge in 2008 prompted store owners to create the joint events, says Gary Baglio, president of the Royal Oak Association of Retailers and owner of Five15, a gift shop.
"If someone comes downtown to buy a dress at one store, they're going to walk about to shop at another store," Baglio says.
Many retailers plan solo holiday events. Leigh's, an upscale women's clothing store in Grand Rapids, Mich., plans five parties including one Black Friday and another aimed at men shopping for wives and girlfriends. On Black Friday, the store will open at 7 a.m., and serve breakfast, coffee, juice and mimosas. Like the big box and department stores, Leigh's will have specials, such as fur scarves that will sell for $59 instead of the usual $98.
Last year's Black Friday party gave Leigh's a 12 percent sales bump, says co-owner Rebecca Wierda.
"We actually had people waiting outside the door for us at 7 a.m.," she says. Some came straight from the malls.
The Beacon Hill Holiday Stroll in Boston Dec. 12 will give Dress, a women's clothing boutique, an opportunity to introduce itself to a new neighborhood. Dress moved to Beacon Hill in September. The event includes a tree lighting, strolling singers and horse and buggy rides.
"I don't think we'll see a lot of people trying on clothes," says co-owner Martha Pickett, "but people will come in and see our store and what we have to offer."