Celebrate Your Independents

Sitting in the home his grandparents bought in 1958, Tom Shay looks around and mentions he’s in the exact spot where his grandfather’s desk used to sit. “This was my childhood dream. I wanted to be able to come back to this house,” he explains.

Now a fourth-generation resident and business owner in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Shay is passionately local and proudly one of the founders of Independent Retailer Month. In the early 2000s, Shay started to notice National Donut Day, Black Dog Day, and Cake Day announcements on the radio. It got him thinking that local restaurants and other independent businesses could leverage the hype through email and social media.

With his wife and colleagues and then at trade shows, he started floating the idea of a specific time each year to celebrate indie businesses. Ultimately, he filled out the paperwork for a book called Chase’s Calendar of Events, which publishes a comprehensive list of special events annually.

When Shay first launched Independent Retailers Month, “it was a week in the middle of July—the week that had my grandmother’s birthday in it,” he describes. But it wasn’t just because of her birthday. “July was picked because, for many areas of business, it’s a slow month,” he explains.

Over time, it became a month-long celebration to give businesses a substantial window to promote and participate. Shay saw it as an opportunity to tell indie owners: “We should celebrate who we are.”

He believes it’s essential to keep celebration the focus. He’s seen memes with “Buy Local or Bye Local” and doesn’t feel that shaming people is a successful strategy. “I think we need to tell the positive story: Here. Here’s what they do for the community. Here. Here’s what happens when we support them,” he says.

He thinks of small businesses like Christmas movies. “They all have neat stories. They are incredible individuals.” And he considers it an act of bravery when someone invests their own money in opening a business.

“They’re telling that town they believe in it. They pick this town because they love it, and they want to be a part of it,” he says. “If there’s something needed, you can always count on a local business.”

For over two decades, that positive storytelling has remained the focus of Independent Retailer Month. “When you get to go to a business, and you get to know the people who own it and the people that work there—I mean, there’s something really special about that,” Shay says.

The Future is Indie

The relationship between the business owner, local customer, and community is what the American Booksellers Association (ABA) has doubled down on emphasizing since the pandemic. Their 2020 #BoxedOut campaign was a striking example.

“COVID plus the convenience of Amazon was leading to indie bookstores closing,” describes marketing manager Courtney Wallace. So, the ABA helped indie booksellers implement physical cardboard installations featuring boxes overtaking each storefront.

Lettering on the cardboard called out: “If you want Amazon to be the world’s only retailer, keep shopping there.” The campaign, which took place in October, was designed to specifically combat Prime Days, which Wallace notes “are a crucial time to remind consumers of their choices and the challenges small businesses face.”

Planning for these campaigns starts at the beginning of the year with goal setting, brainstorming, and tapping industry partners for collaborative promotion. The ABA aims to have resources ready to share with participating members several weeks before Amazon’s Prime Days each year.

In 2023, the ABA geared up for a new campaign titled #TheFutureisIndie. Wallace describes they intended “to inspire consumers to actively engage with independent businesses and make conscious choices” throughout the year.

While shoppers often see messages asserting that independent bookstores have no place in the future, this campaign challenges that. “We wanted to share that the numbers tell the story,” Wallace says. And the numbers show indie businesses are, in fact, “a more economically sound, more vibrant, more interesting, and more diverse future,” she describes.

To help draw people in, The Future is Indie campaign rolled out an alluring tarot card theme that leaned into pop culture and gave a nod to the storytelling that makes indie bookstores essential.

“Tarot cards were so unique and showed a journey that an individual could relate to if they picked one card or combined them…It was so much fun coming up with the ‘readings,'” Wallace says.

The campaign matched the vibe of many participating stores, and they ran with it. Southern California’s oldest and largest indie bookshop, Vroman’s Bookstore, took a particularly inspired approach, offering tarot reading reels on social media. And RJ Julia Independent Booksellers selected a card every day and recommended a book related to it.

Beyond the sheer fun of it, Wallace says, “Looking at the hashtag usage across social media showed how strong the campaign was and how far it reached.” The ABA also launched campaign t-shirts on Bonfire and saw many booksellers wearing them in July to amplify their promotions.

Since then, sellers have continued to use creative plays on The Future is Indie messaging straight through the holiday season and into 2024. Wallace has hit the ground running and looks forward to watching the ripples of the campaign spread in the new year.

Weekend of Local

In Oklahoma, it’s easy to spot similar momentum with another recent initiative called the Weekend of Local (WoL), a campaign launched in July 2021. It’s a remarkable festival across Oklahoma that calls on locals to “Go Out, Shop Small & Eat Local.”

“We’re always looking at ways to grow. This year, we had close to 400 participating businesses throughout the state,” describes Cléo Nash, Executive Director of The Independent Shopkeepers Association (ISA) in OK. In 2024, they’re hoping to reach 500.

“WoL has quickly turned into a summertime Small-Business-Saturday-like tradition,” Nash explains. Initially, the event was created to focus on spending locally as people began shopping in person again in 2021.

“We only expected it to be a one-time campaign, but it was so popular among customers and shop owners that it has since become an annual tradition,” she describes. Concentrating on a single weekend is strategic, bolstering participation from shop owners and shoppers.

Recently, they added Local Bingo to the statewide campaign. “We’re lucky to have partners throughout Oklahoma—Main Streets, districts, Chambers of Commerce. The bingo card is one of the many resources we provide them to generate excitement within their specific communities,” Nash describes.

Some use it for giveaways, and others to host social media content. “We wanted to provide everyone with as many resources as possible to make it easy on these small non-profits while also leaving enough room for creativity,” she says.

Being a non-profit with a limited budget, ISA highly depends on social media to spread the word and share about partner businesses. Each one gets a post related to WoL, and Nash says, “Our favorite part is seeing customers sharing about their favorite shops throughout the weekend.”

July has historically been one of the slowest months for ISA’s businesses, so WoL provides an income and morale boost. “Having a weekend where our businesses experience a wave of support has had a tremendous impact,” Nash says.

Small business ownership can be isolating, and this fun collaboration is a great way to make everyone feel like part of something. “While a boost in sales and foot traffic is always the main goal, growing public awareness on the importance of shopping local is also key,” Nash notes.

Independents Trivia Night

That awareness piece is deeply embedded in another fun and clever Choose Indie Local effort hosted by StayLocal in Greater New Orleans—Biz Trivia Night.

“New Orleans is full of beloved neighborhood bars,” says StayLocal’s Program Manager, Maryann Miller. It’s a culture in which local bars always look for new ways to keep their loyal fans returning.

StayLocal has one major event sponsor, Renaissance Publications/Biz New Orleans magazine. They “provide loads and loads and loads of support for the event,” Miller describes, including a charismatic trivia host, Rich Collins. He’s a well-known local business writer and podcaster with tons of energy and “loves these places as much as the participants,” Miller notes.

As for location, the event has moved from bar to bar “because we want to bring more folks in so that they would like to go to Biz Trivia Night the next year, even if it’s not in their neighborhood,” she says.

“The month leading up, we go ourselves to observe trivia nights in many different locations,” she describes. When they’ve landed on the perfect spot, StayLocal offers the owner a night off from planning so they can host, and the rest falls into place.

StayLocal has also decided to kick it old-school with a zero-phone policy once trivia gets rolling. Though some modern trivia types rely on mobile devices to submit answers, they’ve found that the live host and 100 percent reliance on teammates make for a more thrilling atmosphere.

The subject matter can be contemporary or nostalgic. For instance, one question asked players this year: Which two prominent business owners were involved in one of the most notorious fistfights in New Orleans history inside Morton’s Steakhouse in 1991? It was tough, and only a couple of teams gave the correct answer.

Also, for the first time this year, they introduced a visual bonus round. “It was the shape of a neon sign where the contents were removed,” Miller says. The trivia adds up to three or four rounds of five questions each. After months of crafting the right questions, “It goes by so fast! The energy around it helps it move quickly because everybody’s really jazzed,” Miller says.

Most participants are local business owners themselves, coming out to show their support and connect with friends and neighbors. Something Miller has discovered during her tenure is that “you don’t need to give people gift cards and things from local businesses…You need to give people a thrift-store-bought, customized, tacky trophy.”

The winners take great pride in bringing it home, so much so that she’s now thinking of having just one trophy that rotates to the new winner’s business annually. She thinks this will up the ante and get indie owners even more invested in defending their titles.

What exactly will this year’s Biz Trivia Night look like? We’ll have to wait and see. But hopefully, this offers up plenty of ideas for supporting a neighborhood bar, bookshop, or restaurant near you!

Learn more about AMIBA’s Independents Month in July and sign on as a partner today — it’s free!

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