96: Independent We Stand Checks In Ahead of Small Business Saturday

Written by Rob Stott

November 16, 2021

Co-founder & Executive Director of Independent We Stand Bill Brunelle spends some time discussing the Shop Local movement ahead of Small Business Saturday. Bill also details ways to extend the excitement around supporting small businesses throughout the rest of the calendar.

Nationwide Members can find additional Small Business Saturday and IWS resources at the links here:


Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast and sad that we have to do this over Zoom. You know, we were talking about it Bill, and the last time you and I did a podcast was in Houston. And that was all the way back to episode 10 of this podcast. Now we’re up into the mid to late nineties here. It’s nice to have you back on.

Bill Brunelle: Oh, it’s wonderful to be on. Remember that was just before things got real interesting.

Rob Stott: That was a different world.

Bill Brunelle: And I remember hearing, even at prime time, the mumbling, what the heck’s going on in China, what is going on in Seattle and then getting home and staying home for 18 months.

Rob Stott: It’s been crazy, man, but nice to have you back on. And for those that don’t know, Mr. Bill Brunelle, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Independent We Stand. For those that don’t want to maybe go all the way back to episode 10, just what’s the brief overview, a little bit of background on yourself and your organization there, Independent We Stand.

Bill Brunelle: Sure. Well, I’m essentially the Co-Founder of Independent We Stand, which was first launched in the winter of 2011. And our mission is to, well, it’s twofold. Number one, educate consumers about the importance and really the strong economic impact that locally owned businesses like our Nationwide Marketing Group members have on their local communities. And also then give small businesses tools, resources, tips, ideas, to essentially help them build their local brands and compete with the big box stores and national chains. It has essentially exploded. The interest has been extremely strong, especially when you think about small businesses, don’t have huge marketing staffs. And the big box stores, they might have 30 people on two floors and a big ivory tower in New York City, just on social media. And we’re working with small business owners that have to turn on the lights, have to balance the books, have to sell the product, have to hire the employees.

Oh, and then some marketing experts says, oh yeah, you got to, you got to post on Facebook twice a day. Oh, and it has to be clever. And we make it simple. Thanks to our partnership with Nationwide Marketing Group, who has been a sponsor now going on three years, we provide a full suite of resources that your members can use to, again, stand out from those big box stores, national chains. An example behind me is one of the social media graphics that we’ve developed and it’s one of the most shared out there. These are all absolutely free for Nationwide Marketing Group members and thanks to the sponsorship of Nationwide Marketing Group, they make it all possible.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. So now how much of your guys talking is with small businesses, as opposed, in relation to you guys actually talking to consumers about small business?

Bill Brunelle: I would say 75% of our content is focused on businesses. And what’s interesting over the last 18 months with the pandemic, is that more consumers than ever are paying attention to the plight small businesses. People saw their favorite bookstore go out of business, their favorite restaurant shut down or start serving curbside. And we, beginning in probably mid April, really started to see an interest on all of our channels, including website, social, a huge jump in engagement for consumers. And again, it goes back to all the media. I mean, it goes to all the media attention that small businesses got back then. And I think it really kind of woke up people. I mean, the buy local movement’s been growing now for 10, 15 years, but I think it sent it to overdrive last spring. But we all know consumers are a fickle bunch, so if we don’t keep promoting it and keep telling people that you’re local and using all the resources that Nationwide Marketing Group and Independent We Stand have, they may forget about it. So let’s keep pressure on it.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And I know we’ll get into it a little bit more because there’s a perfect opportunity. We’re sitting here, mid-November talking as we record this, right around the corner to talk about small business. But to your point about keeping the momentum going throughout the year beyond just that one Saturday a year, what kind of things are you doing or seeing over the last 18 months that have worked that maybe could carry forward or just what other sort of tips and tricks are out there that small businesses can kind of capitalize on?

Bill Brunelle: Well, I think consistent social media presence is extremely important. I know you guys offer all sorts of great services to your members and we supplement those activities. But social media usage really increased because people are trying to get news about the pandemic, stay in touch with family and friends that they could not visit with. And I’ve heard it’s leveled off a bit, but it’s still extremely strong. And that’s where we can help with our combined forces, the members, because they don’t have to think too hard about their social media campaign. We can help make it automatic and really get in front. So I think a social media presence is extremely important. And the other thing is make sure that within your community, you stay visible. Not just at the shop, but in the community. And I know many of your members do it, we’ve profiled a number of them.

And you know, when you’re a small business in a community, you’re part of the fabric of that community and the big box stores and national chains aren’t always that way. I’ve talked to your members who serve on school boards or city council, or buy simple things like league uniforms. And this is some of your business is a third and fourth generation. So keep that up, tell your Main Street story. That’s simply a way to remind people that you’ve been a long time resident. Or maybe you’re brand new to the community, but you have a history of helping the community and don’t be afraid to tell them what you’re doing. I know a lot of business owners don’t like to brag, but I wouldn’t hesitate to bring it up once in a while. And I know actions speak louder than words. And I think your community will definitely sit up and take notice when you’re doing wonderful things in their community. So social media, community involvement, and great customer service.

Rob Stott: Now when it comes to social, I know you guys have a lot of great resources that we’ve seen and get posted and shared among the membership about supporting local and shopping local and things like that. Are there, when it comes to the actual message on social media, has that changed at all because of the pandemic, what small businesses should be saying?

Bill Brunelle: Yeah, actually in early March of 2020, we were getting ready to do what we call our promotional road trips. Actually had several Nationwide Marketing Group members that we were going to visit with. And it was March 12th through 15th, it’s a promotional road trip in that I have a whole crew with me and we try to visit five cities in five states in five days. We try to eat local, think local, buy local, stay local the entire time. And we spend a good part of the day interviewing local business owners. And it was apparent in early March that things were getting kind of interesting. And guess where this trip started? Seattle.

Rob Stott: Seattle, there you go.

Bill Brunelle: Yep. With stops down the west coast, including Portland. I think San Francisco, LA, so really the hotspot of everything. And so we had to cancel. And these are fairly complicated trips. We do a lot of pre-planning and I had to make the decision not to go. And I was the one that had to call all of these businesses and tell them that we’re going to postpone this, canceled all the hotel reservations. And these are small mom and pop hotels on the west coast. And in every single one of them, you could hear the uncertainty in their voices. I mean, I know we were all uncertain, but imagine owning a small business and especially a hotel. People were not going to travel for a long time. So it was a very emotional moment for me and my staff. And for the first three to five days, it was like a deer in headlights for all of us. You know, what is the future? What do we do? And we got the staff together after a period of reflection and said, we got to do something.

We have the platform to do something. And we came up with a series of what we call small biz strong or #smallbizstrong materials. And it was everything from social media graphics to video to tips. And to date we’ve probably had about 18,000 downloaded. And we came up with a second round about a month ago and they’re also taken off, but it’s really a way to remind consumers that small businesses need their help. And it was a rallying point that’s done extremely well. And that kind of refocused and reenergized us. And then the press coverage continued to soar and they still need our help. We still need to remind consumers, again, because they’re a fickle bunch that locally owned businesses, like Nationwide Marketing Group members own, are extremely important to the fabric of local economies and local communities and that part’s not going to change. Be patient with those small businesses. They’re having trouble finding products or having trouble finding staff. And that’s really our focus.

Rob Stott: Now in your travels recently, are you seeing, you guys have a great sense of kind of the pulse of how small businesses are feeling and faring. Does it feel like it’s on a major upswing right now? Is there momentum in favor of small business? What are you kind of seeing in the community?

Bill Brunelle: I do. I actually, I’ve seen some studies that show that people are well aware of the importance of small businesses. Actually American Express did a study pre pandemic that showed that nine out of 10 consumers understood the importance of supporting local independent businesses. And I would argue that that’s even higher. It doesn’t get much higher than nine out of 10. But as I mentioned earlier, consumers are a fickle bunch. And now we’re in a period where staffing shortages, the great resignation, the supply chain issues, they’re kind of presenting a little bit of a challenge, not even a little bit, a big challenge to consumers. And so you’ll see us posting content all the time. Please be patient, please be patient. We’re all working through this together because it’s an interesting time to be a retailer or restaurant owner or a human being.

Rob Stott: Right. Right. No, for certain, no two ways about that. And I mean that kind of reality makes small business Saturday, you mentioned American Express, and I know they’ve been a big part of that. And you guys have as well. That’s coming up here, November 27th, is that right?

Bill Brunelle: Yep.

Rob Stott: So it’s right around the corner. Now how does that, obviously it’s always a big mark on the calendar for the small business community each year. And how does it change this year? Does it change at all? Or is it just sort of still hammering that drum, beating that drum about the day?

Bill Brunelle: Well, yes. You know, we’ve been a coalition partner with American Express on small business Saturday since it was first introduced in 2010-11 time period. And it kind of struck a nerve when it first hit because American Express spends a lot of money on media. We estimate they probably have spent close to a billion dollars on small business Saturday. And it was a great way to remind customers that the day after black Friday is a great day to support local businesses. And I think it’s just become a retail phenomenon. Our big push is to remind people to shop small every day.

And so that’s why we have different promotions and we have retail holiday oriented social media graphics, everything from Mother’s Day to back to school. So we’re trying to help promote it year round. But we’re excited to be partners again this year with American Express. It’s a huge deal. Last year, remember this was November, 2020, and they still estimate that 20 billion dollars was sold on small business Saturday. Now, imagine in November, so we’re talking about six months after the pandemic really kicked off, so yeah, 20 billion. It might have been some curbside pickup, might have been some ordering online, probably a ton of ordering online. So it was still a record for small business Saturday. And I expect now, especially consumers are really starting to spend again, this one will be even bigger and better.

Rob Stott: That’s always awesome to hear. And I mean, to your point about their, and we saw it obviously as well in our own talking with members and seeing how their business strategy sort of morphed overnight because of this pandemic. How are they feeling? What kind of things are they doing this year as opposed to last year to kind of prep themselves for this weekend and make sure that they can kind of take advantage of? There are challenges now, as we mentioned, supply chain and there’s inventory challenges to, what are they doing to ensure that they can kind of break another record, if you will, for small business Saturday?

Bill Brunelle: Well, I think consumer spending, as we’ve learned, is going through the roof right now. And I expect that trend to continue. The only thing I think might challenge that record is because the media and the press have really been promoting buy ahead of time. Because three quarters of the Christmas presents in the nation are on ships off the LA harbor. So that could put a little fly in the ointment, but it remains to be seen.

I’m optimistic that they’ll do at least as much, if not more. I remember last year on small business Saturday, I’ve got a great neighborhood near me called the ViBe district, which is in Virginia Beach, Virginia. And there were so many cool stores doing stuff anyway, everything from surf shops to restaurants and a bunch of other merchants. And they were social distancing, there were masks and they still had a record year here at the ViBe district. And I’m optimistic that we can pull something off, especially because demand is so much up there and who knows, maybe they’re having trouble buying online and they want to go direct to the store.

Rob Stott: Just kind of counteract what you think you’ve been hearing. So you got to go see for yourself in person what’s actually happening. So that’s a good way of approaching it. No, for sure. You touched on it a little bit, but some of those challenges. We mentioned the supply chain, you talk about the labor challenges. What’s kind of your outlook for that? Does it get better? I know we’re all guessing on the supply chain. So I know that’s kind of the big question right now. But let’s focus on maybe labor and kind of what you’re seeing there. Does it get better? What are small businesses doing or what can they do to kind of navigate these challenging, frankly, times that they’re facing right now?

Bill Brunelle: Promote the fact that you’re locally and if possible, if it’s true, a family business. I think that appeals, especially to future employees. Because I know we’ve shared articles and published content about the appeal of working for a locally owned business. You’re going to work with the boss, the guy that owns the place or the woman that owns the place or the family that owns the place. Which means if you do a great job, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get a promotion. Whereas if you’re in a big corporate structure and there’s a formal HR department, again, the HR department is just above the social media department in that big glass tower in New York, your chances of advancement in small locally owned businesses are much, much stronger than a corporate big box store or national chain. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of a family business that has a long time employee and they actually make them a part, and they’re not officially part of the family, but they are part of the family.

You hear those stories all the time. And so we actually wrote a blog post about a month ago about that. Promote the fact that you’re locally owned. It can appeal to people that are part of the great resignation. And part of the reason for the great resignation are people are looking for more fulfilling jobs. And if you’re working for a family business and you’re part of the action, you can work your way up to manage the store or be a co-owner, I think that has a lot of appeal for people who are looking for more meaning in their careers.

Rob Stott: No, absolutely. And case in point, you could flip a couple episodes back on this podcast and see. We spoke to an owner of a store down in Lake Charles, Louisiana, who started out as a delivery guy in the service department. And eventually went to college for an education degree, ended up, the job he was in got eliminated. And he was looking for something, recently married, went back to the retailer and was like, hey, do you have anything? He was like, well, I only got a sales job. He was like, I’ll take it, just get me in the door. And lo and behold, a few years later, him and his wife, who both were actually working at the store, ended up looking, wanting to move on. They were like, all right, we got to get into our careers.

And the owner was like, hold on a sec. Let’s have dinner real quick. And at that dinner, offered him to buy the business. And had it worked out that he was going to be the succession plan for the owner to retire and move on and never even put two cents worth of thought into possibly owning the store. And now 17 years later has been owning and running this business for the better part of two decades. So to your point, that happens all the time in this industry, stuff like that. Crazy.

Bill Brunelle: Yeah. I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I understand entrepreneurship has really increased. Because, again, people were working that nine to five job and it really didn’t mean much to them and they were working long hours and commuting unbelievably long commutes, and they suddenly decided, you know what, I’d like to do this myself. And that was a perfect, I know it happened before the pandemic, but that’s a lot of what’s happening right now. Living the American dream like your members do.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. Every day, every day they do. And they’re doing it on America’s Main streets, which, nice little segue.

Bill Brunelle: Perfect segue.

Rob Stott: See what I did there. No, but you guys are in the midst right now of running, I think, what is this, the seventh?

Bill Brunelle: Sixth.

Rob Stott: Sixth year.

Bill Brunelle: Sixth annual America’s Main Street contest.

Rob Stott: Tell us a little bit about that and what this contest has been like and how you’ve seen it grown and just what kind of things you guys are doing with it?

Bill Brunelle: Oh, it’s been phenomenal. We first came up with the idea six years ago because we wanted to recognize all of the hard work that Main Street groups, small chambers of commerce, downtown associations, merchants associations, were doing in their communities, but especially the small businesses that help those communities thrive. I think the first year was 2015 and we had a phenomenal response. We give away $25,000 plus sponsor related prizes. For example, we gave away a $500 shopping spree at the closest Nationwide Marketing Group member, $500 from Stihl, who’s also a sponsor, and some other sponsors. And the fifth annual started on February 27th, 2020, another interesting time to have a major promotion or event for us. And it is a web based contest. You can find it at mainstreetcontest.com. And the reason I mentioned that is because website traffic just plunged around early March.

And it was so quiet. But just like I mentioned with our social engagement, some of the other things had started to increase and especially pushed by major media outlets, it started going through the roof. I think at the end of the contest, we had 1.5 million votes. 45 states were represented. And a small town in Sykesville, Maryland which is like maybe half hour outside of Baltimore, between Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland. Population, 11,000. It is a former railroad town where the well to do in Baltimore would vacation during the summer to escape the city heat. So it’s got an absolutely gorgeous Main Street, very historical nature. It’s actually a historic district. So a lot of the buildings still have to maintain the same architecture and all that stuff. And they were also like us, deer in headlights when they won. And they decided, they had 58 merchants at the time, they decided let’s take this cash and let’s help the merchants survive this pandemic.

And it was, we usually go and celebrate and do a big check presentation on July 4th. But on July 4th, 2020, nobody was going anywhere. So we had to postpone that. But we got to go last July 4th. And we found out that of the 60 businesses that were affected by the pandemic, not one closed. And in fact, they added two more. So it was an emotional day to say the least. And it’s usually the smaller communities that win. We’ve had lots of big metro Main Streets that have entered. But you know, when you’ve got a tiny Main Street in the middle of Maryland, doesn’t have a big budget anyway, you’re going to rally a little bit harder to try to win that. And so we just kicked off the sixth annual in September. The response has been extremely encouraging again. And on Monday, November 17th, we will announce the top 25 Main Streets.

And the whole process will begin again to determine the top 10 semi-finals. And then on December 20th, we’ll announce the winning Main Street. We shifted it from the spring to the fall to be a little bit more COVID friendly and also to tie in a little bit more with small business Saturday. But the response has been phenomenal again this year. People care about their ain Street’s and I cannot emphasize enough how many great small business groups, Main Street groups, there are approximately 1200 formal Main Street groups in the country. And these are many times they are volunteers just trying to help their Main Streets.

I was highly encouraged. In fact, I talk about this when I do my presentations at prime time, join those Main Street groups, join those buy local groups. Don’t just join, become active. You’re going to network with other local business owners that think like you do and consumers, again, understand the importance of supporting independent businesses. And you can form a formal campaign, spend a little money, start a social media campaign, have events, small business Saturday. You can make a real difference, not just to the community, but to your bottom line.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s exciting to see. That’s awesome about last year’s winner and kind of the fact that not one of them shut down and they added to it. So that’s encouraging and just really cool to hear. But we know you guys have a lot of work ahead of you too this year. So you’re in the thick of it right now with getting it all out there and getting the votes in and narrowing down that list. So it’ll be cool to follow and see. Now, have there been, obviously there’s a ton of Main Streets out there. Have there been any that came close to possibly repeating or anything like that?

Bill Brunelle: The only repeats we ever had is two Main Streets, one in Ohio back to back, couple years ago. But once you win, you’re disqualified for winning again. Certain states have wonderful Main Street programs and Ohio is one of them. They have a formal state department to help Main Streets. And Ashtabula, Ohio, which is up on the lake, just northeast of Cleveland and then Wellington, Ohio, won a couple years back. And they’re just below Cleveland. But again, that’s because they’re in a state that really supports their Main Street programs and really had their act together. But still, both were very small towns. And we had some in the Cleveland metro area that were big budget Main Street groups, and the little guys are the ones that win. I’m always rooting for the little guy.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome to hear. And I know we’re here in mid-November in the thick of this small business Saturday season, and you guys have a lot going on. But I know you mentioned some additional resources as well. So where can our listeners and members go to find out more about what you guys are doing for small business Saturday?

Bill Brunelle: Well, again, small business Saturday is Saturday, November 27th. So it is right around the corner. The very first thing I would do is visit shopsmall.com, which is American Express’s official small business Saturday. They actually have a studio where you can customize and download everything from in store materials to social media graphics, and it’s free of charge. Plus you can sign up, they have a pretty strong search engine to show consumers who is participating in small business Saturday. So the very first thing I would ask your members to do is go to shopsmall.com. In addition, last week we sent out a Nationwide Marketing Group specific small business Saturday activation plan, which is a document filled with all sort of fun resources and links to customizable materials you can take and download and promote and encourage consumers to start thinking about shopping local. And again, it’s only two weeks out.

So save this date. Actually, there’s a graphic on there saying, save this date, Saturday, November 27th. And it’s all absolutely free. Both kits are absolutely free and I would highly encourage they jump on it right away. And if anybody has any questions about the small business Saturday resources and Independent We Stand or on shopsmall.com, please have them email me, call me, show up at my front door, write me a letter, although I don’t know that snail mail will be here on time. Whatever we can do to help everybody engage and build their brand. Small business Saturday is a pretty big deal. And again, we’ll take it from there and make sure that consumers know that shopping year round is also important as well.

Rob Stott: Absolutely. And we’ll share some links to those resources. Some that are out already, some as they come out. They’ll be in the description. If you’re watching on YouTube, right below us. And if you’re on our website listening, or listening on a podcast platform, head to nationwidegroup.org/podcast and you’ll see the episode. Click on there. It’ll be underneath in the episode description. So Bill, this was awesome. It’s always great catching up with you. Let’s not wait a year and a half again to do a podcast and maybe next time we’ll get to do it in person if you’re in Phoenix with us.

Bill Brunelle: I was just going to say, let’s get together in Phoenix.

Rob Stott: Sounds like a good time. And we can kind of recap how things went and maybe do a little highlight on the winner. Eventually, once that gets announced and the Main Street contest comes to a close. So, this was great. We appreciate it and look forward to catching up again real soon.

Bill Brunelle: Sounds good. I enjoy talking to you.

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