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Small Business Saturday: support the engine of recovery

1 December 2020: Now in its eighth year, Small Business Saturday UK aims to drum up support for businesses that went above and beyond for their communities.

Small Business Saturday started in the US 11 years ago as a response to the economic devastation of the financial crisis. It originated as a campaign by credit card company American Express, in response to a speech by Barack Obama in which he called small businesses “the engine of recovery” for the US economy. American Express created it to be grassroots and community-focused, and it took on a life of its own.

Three years in, it had become a big celebration of small businesses, with the President taking an active role in promoting it. With Barack Obama’s explicit backing, it brought global attention to Small Business Saturday.

It was around this time that the founder and organiser of UK Small Business Saturday, Michelle Ovens MBE, heard about the event. A friend of hers was involved in the Cannes Lions advertising festival and the US Small Business Saturday had won several awards that year. He thought it was the sort of thing she’d be interested in.

“It was very much up my street, so we decided to do it here [in the UK],” she explains in a recent video interview with ICAEW’s Director for Business and Industrial Strategy Iain Wright. “It was a massive collaboration involving lots of people. We worked with the shadow business secretary, we worked with the government, we worked with huge amounts of trade organisations.”

American Express, of course, supported the UK Small Business Saturday from the beginning. “We kind of cobbled it together in year one, but there is something magic about small businesses that’s very close to people's hearts.”

The UK event is now in its eighth year and has become well established. It is not just about retail businesses; it’s about celebrating and promoting any small business, including B2B. “It's about people and communities, and what's important to us. And what we want our lives to be, thinking about where we spend our money, who we trade with, who we employ, support and look after. I think that's really been highlighted this year.”

You cannot deny that it's been a hideous year for small businesses, says Ovens. Around a million small businesses haven’t been able to operate since the last lockdown. While there have been new startups this year and digital companies have done well, a further three-to-four million have struggled. It’s why a big focus of Small Business Saturday is a message to small business owners across the country: ‘You’re not alone’.

“There's a lot of people who really want to help you. Not just people who work in the sector providing training, support or guidance; everyone,” says Ovens. “We know from our research with American Express this year, 60% of people are spending more now with small businesses than they did pre-pandemic. It’s a huge shift in our culture and our consciousness. People are aware of small businesses and the role that they play.”

Small Business Saturday takes place the first Saturday after the second full lockdown ends. The new tier system will allow some businesses to open in some limited capacity, while others must remain closed. There are still opportunities out there, but small businesses need our support. Shop safely, says Ovens, but do what you can to patronise the companies that matter to you, especially as small businesses have gone above and beyond to help the communities they serve.

“I am going to my local bookshop,” says Ovens. “I’m not supposed to have favourite small businesses but that one is possibly my favourite. It's a great place for Christmas presents but they have also done amazing things during lockdown. They've been doing deliveries of groceries; a bookshop. So, I'm going to get some Christmas presents.”