By Mary Heyl 

There are just seven more Saturdays until Christmas!

For many people, these valuable shopping days are spent at strip malls in bigger cities outside of their communities. But for a growing number of consumers, these weekends are spent much closer to home, as shopping locally is becoming a more popular choice every year.

The celebration of this trend is Small Business Saturday, the holiday shopping day sandwiched between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. On Saturday, Nov. 28, small businesses across the U.S. are opening their doors and encouraging community members to shop local!

This year marks the sixth year of Small Business Saturday, an event created by American Express to promote locally-owned businesses in 2010. Since then, the day has gained traction nationwide, as Small Business Saturday was officially recognized by the Senate in 2011.

According to Forbes.com, a 2014 survey from the National Federation of Independent Businesses and American Express revealed that 88 million consumers “shopped small” on November 29, 2014, which was an increase of 14.9 percent from 2013. An impressive $14.3 billion was spent with independent retailers and restaurants on the day, up 2.1 percent from 2013.

Equally impressive is the public recognition of Small Business Saturday, especially given the foothold that its notorious counterpart, Black Friday, has maintained for decades. According to Forbes.com, 67 percent of Americans were aware of Small Business Saturday in 2014, and on the day itself, 126,000 tweets were sent with such hashtags as #SmallBizSat and #ShopSmall.

American Express continues to sponsor Small Business Saturday by offering small businesses a variety of free marketing tools that are available at ShopSmall.com. From posters to tote bags to digital marketing materials, American Express has made sure to bring their catch phrase, “Shop Small,” to the attention of more consumers every year.

When it comes to shopping locally, convenience and a positive environmental impact go hand-in-hand. Chances are, a local business is just a few miles (or less!) from your driveway, which means shorter drives in hazardous weather and relatively less fuel consumption. Furthermore, small businesses are more likely to have a small environmental impact, as they typically occupy pre-existing structures and produce less waste than large chains.

The overwhelming variety of merchandise offered by “big box” retailers sometimes eclipses the unique opportunities that shopping locally affords. While local retailers may not occupy the thousands of square feet that major retailers do, they offer a more unique inventory of items than can be carried by big chains.

Small businesses also are more likely to carry American-made goods, including locally-made items that are unique to the area. If long lines and over-worked, unhappy sales associates are what you often encounter at the mall, then consider the friendly, personalized customer service that you could get at a business just down the street.

Indeed, communities like Ellicottville, Allegany, Randolph and Olean provide many opportunities for Cattaraugus County residents to shop locally throughout the holiday season. Hand-made gifts, apparel, spa and restaurant gift certificates and tasty treats are just some of the items that local businesses offer.

According to Crystal Abers, director of the Cattaraugus County Economic Development, Planning and Tourism, local businesses and artisans are becoming a mainstay of holiday shopping.

“People seem to be going back to the local, homemade shopping experience,” explained Abers, “which means events like the W.I.L.M.A. Craft Show and Small Business Saturday are becoming more popular.”

Indeed, the county-sponsored W.I.L.M.A. craft show two weekends ago saw an increase in holiday shoppers looking for unique gifts.

“This county offers a diverse range of businesses and goods that you can’t find in big stores,” said Abers.

Hand-crafted jewelry, toys, and local foods like maple syrup, honey, and horseradish are just a few of the local items that make great gifts, especially for out-of-town relatives. Abers cites the county’s well-known wineries and distilleries, especially those in the Ellicottville area, as great sources of local gifts. Don’t be afraid to venture outside the downtown, too, as outlying businesses like alpaca farms have cozy accessories for every member of the family.

While the trend to shop local is on the rise, Abers believes there’s opportunity for people to get more involved.

Cattaraugus County offers several resources for shoppers looking to shop local over the next several weeks; visit EnchantedMountains.com for a directory of county shops and restaurants.

Have a favorite EVL business? Watch for special sales and promotions on Small Business Saturday. You may be able to get all your holiday shopping finished by the end of the day!