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Women walk past a mural reading 'Shop local, stop the virus', amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Galway, Ireland,on Sept. 9, 2020.CLODAGH KILCOYNE/Reuters

A new retail shopping event encouraged consumers to support small businesses on Saturday, reminding shoppers that the holiday season is a critical time for many neighbourhood mom-and-pop shops.

Small Business Saturday, wedged between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, is the latest sales campaign aimed at holiday shoppers.

But unlike its larger retail counterparts, which tend to shine a spotlight on big box stores, Small Business Saturday suggested consumers support their local stores.

The initiative comes during the holiday shopping season, a make-or-break time of year for many independent businesses.

Laura Jones, executive vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said 2020 has been one of the toughest years ever for many businesses.

“It’s been a nightmare on Main Street,” she said in an interview Saturday. “It’s been financially and emotionally very, very difficult for small business.”

Ms. Jones said the shopping event is intended to push consumers toward supporting small businesses online, using curbside pick-up or taking advantage of in-person shopping where possible.

“We’re asking people to think about their choices and become a conscious consumer,” she said, adding that the idea is to encourage shoppers to think beyond the big chains and online giants.

“The survival of small businesses in your neighbourhood depends on your support.”

According to the CFIB’s latest data, only 38 per cent of retail businesses are reaching their usual sales levels. One in seven is at risk of closing permanently, or about 158,000 businesses across Canada.

Ms. Jones said small businesses are the “backbone of the economy.” Data compiled by the CFIB and campaign sponsor American Express said small businesses employ nine out of 10 Canadians and often support local charities, schools and sports teams.

“The bottom line is the consumer has the power to make a difference here,” she said. “We’re not powerless in this pandemic. The choices we make every day will shape what Canada is going to look like tomorrow.”

During the pandemic, many small businesses have ramped up their online presence.

The CFIB said more than 150,000 small businesses in Canada have entered the e-commerce market since March. In all, about a third of small businesses now offer online sales.

Retail analyst Bruce Winder said a retail event like Small Business Saturday is “incredibly relevant” this year.

“Most small retailers have been shut down or limited for several months now and they’re really struggling,” he said. “This is a good way to get the message out there that they need our support and many now have an online presence.”

Still, Mr. Winder said what’s needed is policy change to allow independent merchants to remain open during the pandemic.

He pointed to Nova Scotia, which has allowed all retailers to stay open during the second wave but at a reduced occupancy of 25 per cent normal capacity limits, as a good example.

“Leave everyone open but limit the capacity so everyone is on a level playing field,” said Mr. Winder, the author of the book Retail Before, During and After COVID-19.

“We need to give small businesses a fighting chance.”

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