As holiday shopping season nears, American Express executive keeps tabs on small retailers

NEW YORK, N.Y. – American Express Co. is largely viewed as an upscale charge card company, but it’s increasingly on the pulse of what’s going on with small business.

With the holidays approaching, AmEx will focus on small merchants who’ll take in billions of dollars in sales charged on American Express cards. Susan Sobbott, who heads the company’s small business operation, American Express Open, says that based on what she’s seeing, the holidays may not be the most robust for small retailers, but stores should show sales gains compared with last year.

AmEx keeps tabs on how optimistic small businesses are. A survey in September showed that 62 per cent of retailers had a positive view of the economy, compared to 56 per cent of small businesses overall. Half the retailers surveyed expected their revenue to rise over the next six months, compared to 43 per cent of all businesses.

Sobbott is frank about why AmEx is interested in small business: A thriving company is more likely to be an AmEx customer and use its charge and credit cards.

AmEx started its small business operation in 1987 as American Express Small Business Services, and in 2002 renamed it American Express Open. Sobbott, in her job since 2004, oversees several programs. Best known is Small Business Saturday, a campaign designed to get consumers to shop at independent retailers and other small businesses the Saturday after Thanksgiving. AmEx also sponsors events to help small companies win government contracts and CEO Bootcamp, a program aimed at helping women business owners.

Sobbott spoke recently with The Associated Press about AmEx and small businesses. Here are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. How are retailers feeling as the holiday season approaches?

A. I think there is cautious optimism. I think retailers are going in with a great deal of focus on how to drive traffic to their doors. I think they’re trying to be as smart as they can in terms of how to get the word out about their particular business. They have their eyes open about the obstacles — in fact, this season, there are five fewer shopping days than last season because Thanksgiving is so late. The weather, at least in the Northeast, has been so mild and that has challenged the apparel business. All this is factoring into retailers’ thinking about the holiday season. We may not have the most robust holiday season we’ve ever seen, but I do think it will show an increase over last year.

Q. What are you doing differently for Small Business Saturday?

A. We’re trying to make the program, while it’s run on a national scale, feel very relevant at a local and neighbourhood level. We’ve created a program what we call an ambassador program. We’ve recruited leaders around the country to organize a bunch of retailers, or work with their chamber of commerce to have specific events of their own. We have over 1,000 communities that have enrolled. For consumers, we will have a $10 credit for spending that day at a small business, including retailers, restaurants and consumer services.

Q. It was $25 in previous years. Why change it?

A. We made the change because we want more consumers to participate in Small Business Saturday. By making the credit $10, we have research that shows consumer will be equally likely to shop in a small business with $10 as they were at $25. But we can get many more consumers to do that. Our investment in Small Business Saturday will be constant; it will still be a multimillion investment.

Q. What’s your sense of how small businesses, and in particular, small retailers, are doing?

A. Small businesses today in general are healthier than their ancestors because they’ve survived the recession, the demands of cost-cutting and ambivalent if not reticent consumers. Are they feeling the pain of a very rocky economy, an economy that has yet to determine its path? Absolutely. What we do see is the retailers in general among our customers are very optimistic.

Q. American Express is often viewed as an upper-class company. What can small business owners expect from AmEx?

A. It’s not only for paying for cabs and hotels if you’re travelling. It’s often paying for your inventory. We’re doing our best to ensure that our card members have the ability to use the card for large purchases. We have members literally charging millions of dollars on their American Express card, so we can provide them the cash flow benefits of using the card. It’s providing you that short-term float that many businesses need.