Chicago’s small-business owners have their day amid the holiday hoopla

Jenny Beorkrem, owner of Neighborly gift shop at 4710 N. Lincoln Ave., stands in the Lincoln Square store, Wednesday, Nov. 22.

Jenny Beorkrem, owner of Neighborly gift shop at 4710 N. Lincoln Ave., stands in the Lincoln Square store, Wednesday, Nov. 22.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On your mark … get set … shop!

But wait a minute — haven’t we been holiday shopping for some time? Black Friday used to be an eagerly awaited day for some, but now retailers have been pushing Black Friday deals since before Halloween.

The post-Thanksgiving spending season has changed a lot over the years. Yes, the big-box titans are primed for a blitz of customers, but other competitive factors are in play. Cyber Monday is huge, but experts also cite growing interest in supporting local merchants, typified by Small Business Saturday.

Check with any local chamber of commerce, and you’re liable to find events and promotions tied to the coming weekend.

In Lincoln Square on the North Side, for example, the community plans a tree lighting ceremony and caroling to get people in the spirit.

Among the storeowners anticipating the occasion is Jenny Beorkrem, owner of the gift shop Neighborly at 4710 N. Lincoln Ave., which specializes in home goods and artwork, some with a Chicago theme. She said her business has picked up through the pandemic the last two or three years.

“We saw a shift during the pandemic of people being more aware of small businesses,” she said.

A customer shops at Neighborly gift shop at 4710 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Square, Wednesday, Nov. 22.

A customer shops at Neighborly gift shop at 4710 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Square, Wednesday, Nov. 22.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Beorkrem said her shop carries only products that meet fair trade and eco-friendly standards, with many made locally. To draw the weekend’s shoppers, she’s running a 15% off deal on local goods, such as the popular Bright Endeavors candles made by a West Side organization that supports young mothers.

Neighborly also has a pop-up location at 1554 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park.

Retail analysts are often guardedly optimistic when projecting holiday sales. Some are emphasizing the “guarded” part this year because of signs that American consumers are stressed.

Is that a concern for Beorkrem? “As a small business, we’re always concerned. It’s kind of our second nature,” she said. But she’s felt confident enough to add three temporary workers for the holidays, supplementing her staff of six.

Other areas with “shop local” events this weekend include Logan Square, Rogers Park and Bronzeville.

The Bronzeville organizers call their Saturday festivities at 35th Street and King Drive the largest holiday kickoff on the South Side.

Organizer Kenya Renee, owner of Absolutely Anything Essential Gift Shop at 3521 S. King Drive, said the season comes at a crucial time for local entrepreneurs. “You see a record number of big-box stores closing, so just imagine how small business owners are dealing with the changes affecting retail,” she said.

Renee said she hopes the Bronzeville event will educate consumers about what’s available to them near their homes. Her own location, which she said has operated for seven years, is an incubator for artisans and hobbyists and those who wish to buy or learn from them.

The National Retail Federation said it expects 182 million people in the U.S. to shop in-store or online through the five-day shopping weekend, ending on Cyber Monday. It’s the highest projection since it began the analysis in 2017.

Shopping for gifts in November and December is nearly a $1 trillion affair. NRF reckons that this year’s holiday spending will rise about 3% from 2022 to around $960 billion, a smaller rate of increase than the economy posted during its bounce back from COVID-19 closures.

In a national survey by Gallup and e-commerce firm Shopify, 36% said they expect to visit a small business Saturday, and another 44% said they would do so another day. The survey said the support for small business is strongest among middle-aged shoppers.

Consulting firm Deloitte, in its annual outlook for holiday budgets, said Chicago-area consumers are feeling a pinch. It said respondents figure they will cut spending on presents by 6% from 2022, to an average of $1,600.

Deloitte found a preference shift toward online shopping and specialty beauty retailers and away from department stores.

Nationally, the firm was more bullish, expecting average spending per person to increase by 13% to $1,652, topping pre-pandemic highs.

“In short, the tinsel is no longer in a tangle,” Deloitte analysts wrote.

Inflation in the grocery aisles has caused some people to cut holiday budgets, while others have been hit by a resumption of student loan payments.

But this year finds consumers overall in decent shape, said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. He said retailers that fare well will have absorbed lessons from the pandemic.

“As tragic as it was for people, the pandemic did retail a favor in a fashion. It forced retailers to quit experimenting with technology and to jump in with both feet.”

But for this weekend, the technology will take a back seat to face-to-face commerce and visits from Santa, who will be in heavy demand for gift orders and photo shoots. He can’t linger, though. He’s got promises to keep and continents to visit before he sleeps.