SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It's a little tough to feel jolly this holiday season, if you're a small-business owner. Bruised by the recession and uneasy about the post-election economy, America's small businesses face yet another big unknown: whether consumers are feeling festive or frugal.
This weekend, they've got a great chance to find out: Small Business Saturday, the annual "shop local" day designed to pump up mom-and-pop businesses.
Squeezed between the Black Friday mall frenzy and Cyber Monday's online shopping kickoff, it's a chance for the small retailer to shine.
"In addition to holiday music wafting through the air, we're hearing the ringing of uncertainty in Sacramento and California. Whether it's a bookstore, auto shop or restaurant, they're still very uncertain about how many customers will come through the door," said John Kabateck, California's director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
That's because retailers are getting mixed messages about consumer spending, coupled with uncertainty about new taxes, health care mandates and other economic realities that's made them skittish about 2013.
" 'Tentative' is a good word," said Brian Lawrence, store manager of Emigh Outdoor Living, describing what he sees as shoppers' attitudes so far. "We're hoping for a 10 percent increase in holiday sales over last year. But it's challenging."
At his El Camino Avenue outdoor furnishings store, those holiday hopes are hanging from the branches of about 25 elaborately decorated Christmas trees, part of the store's annual changeover into a home decorating marketplace of trees, wreaths, candles and table decor.
Some projections say this Black Friday weekend will be a good one for the nation's malls and chains, launching a November-December season where sales are expected to reach $586.1 billion, up 4.1 percent from last year.
But small-business owners like Lawrence are hoping that shoppers seeking personal service will look beyond the big-box retailers.
Retirees Jeannette and Richard Nardinelli, who stopped at Emigh's recently to look for St. Nicholas Day ornaments for their grandchildren, don't need convincing.
"We try to do everything local and patronize local businesses," said Jeannette, a River Park resident. "It's important to support the neighborhood you live in."
This year, the average holiday shopper will spend an estimated $751 on gifts, decorations and other holiday purchases, according to the National Retail Federation. How much of that winds up in the pockets of small-business owners is hard to estimate.
The NRF doesn't track sales specifically to small retailers, but notes that 95 percent of the nation's retailers are independent companies with one location.
Started in 2010 during the recent recession, Small Business Saturday is a collaboration between American Express and the NFIB.
"It started from a small idea to become a growing fixture across California and the nation to address small businesses' No. 1 need: more customers," said Kabateck, NFIB's director in Sacramento.
In California, the average NFIB member has five to seven employees and gross annual sales of $350,000 to $450,000. For many, holiday sales can represent nearly 20 percent of annual sales, according to industry estimates.
"Coming out of the election, the volume was turned up on how important small businesses are to the economy. There was a lot of dialogue and rhetoric," said Kabateck. We hope that translates to patronizing their corner store instead of their big box."