A sign in the door at Maya Papaya & Tony Macarony Children’s Store announces a 20% off sale on all apparel for both Black Friday and Small Business Saturday.

But store owner Simone Oettinger says Small Business Saturday is actually a lot bigger for her.

“It’s pretty important to us,” Oettinger says, of her Central Street shop. “We feel the love from our loyal customers.”

Small Business Saturday was actually created by American Express in 2010 for the day after Black Friday, as a way of supporting local merchants who were often ignored in the rush to big deals at big box retailers.

Since then, the combination of e-commerce and COVID-19 have impacted merchants large and small.

In fact, major stores have even cut back on in-person hours during the Thanksgiving period. Some retailers like Target and Macy’s stayed closed on turkey day.

Oettinger says the rise of online shopping has made the Black Friday 5 a.m. pilgrimage to line up for deals not really necessary.

“Nobody’s going to trample anyone to buy a big screen TV, which you can order online anyway,” she notes.

But for neighborhood merchants, Small Business Saturday is a chance to say hello to people who “choose to come here,” Oettinger says.

Oettinger says this fall is looking a lot better than last year, and when you consider COVID-19, it’s not surprising things are better.

For Matt Abitbol, owner of Commonwealth Running Company downtown, anything has to be better than 2020.

Commonwealth Running opened 17 days before the pandemic hit, and then had to close for three months.

“Not a lot of people even knew we existed,” Abitbol says.

Since then, awareness of his athletic shoe and apparel store has grown, through a combination of in-person, online and curbside pickup options.

Abitbol says there is “definitely more foot traffic downtown” now than there was last year, although still not as much as before the pandemic.

To help attract more customers to downtown and neighborhood shops, marketing organizations for Downtown Evanston, the Main Dempster Mile, and Central Street are offering a variety of promotional items such as gift cards, gift bags, and free parking vouchers.

The discovery of a new COVID strain in South Africa, plus the growing number of other COVID cases in places like nearby Michigan have small retailers holding their breaths.

But COVID or not, the biggest threat to small businesses, according to Annie Coakley, director of the Downtown Evanston marketing group, is the customer’s phone or laptop.

“In recent years,” Coakley says, “our biggest threat is online shopping, and it will continue to be so.”

For that reason, Coakley adds, “local loyalty is the key to the success of retail in Evanston.”

In other words, the hope is for a big payoff on Small Business Saturday.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.