By Bill Brunelle

Experts predict that consumer spending will grow this holiday season by as much as 4.5 percent. If the early forecasts are correct, then holiday spending will top last year’s growth of 3.6 percent, according to Deloitte. The numbers are encouraging, but the results won’t come automatically. For small and local retailers, the key is knowing how overall consumer spending growth can translate to growth for your business.

While consumer spending is expected to grow, the way that consumers spend money may not change dramatically. Online sales will be high, and the season may begin earlier. These are trends that retailers have seen year after year, so retailers big and small should be able to plan ahead. If a strategy worked well last year, assuming it wasn’t 2016-specific, you may consider going that route again this year.

If you’re ready to mix things up, the following tips make for a good starting point:

1. Start Now

Let’s face it: The holiday shopping season hasn’t begun on Black Friday in years. Big boxes and national chains now entice consumers out of their houses on Thanksgiving Day — and in reality, many consumers have already started their holiday shopping by the time they put the turkey in the oven. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), more than half of consumers began researching their holiday purchases in October or earlier. Purchasing still seems to begin for many consumers in November, but 33 percent will begin crossing things off their lists before November. In other words, the time to launch your holiday strategy is now.

2. Prioritize Online Engagement

Whether your business maintains an e-commerce platform or not, it’s important to pay attention to what consumers are saying about it online. Particularly during the holiday season, consumers may try to get in touch with your business through social media, email or elsewhere. Be sure to respond to their comments, questions and reviews, even when you’re busy preparing for the Small Business Saturday rush. Answering a simple question about a product or service your business offers could convert a hesitant consumer into a loyal customer.

3. Give Small Business Saturday Your All

Speaking of the Small Business Saturday rush, it’s important to make the most of this big day. Year after year, consumers spend millions of dollars at small and local businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving — and 2017 should be no different. Snag your Small Business Saturday swag from American Express early and consider applying for an even bigger role as a Neighborhood Champion.

4. Create an Experience

Many holiday shoppers don’t need another pair of shoes to gift wrap. Increasingly, consumers desire spending money on experiences rather than on material items. Consider offering holiday shoppers a unique, seasonal experience that doesn’t require them to walk down long aisles under the fluorescent lights of the big-box stores. For instance, you could host an intimate, after-hours shopping experience for your most loyal customers or a family-friendly shopping day with holiday crafts to entertain the young ones. You may also be able to offer an experience that customers can gift to their loved ones, such as a future DIY class or weekend outing.

5. Promote Your Policies

According to NRF, three-quarters of holiday shoppers checked return policies before making a purchase last year. Big-box stores and national chains can often have inflexible return policies that are hard to find. As a small business, you have the opportunity to make decisions on a local level. Consider implementing a more flexible return policy for the holiday season and promote that policy for all customers to see.

As you plan for the holiday season, keep in mind that you know your local community better than forecasters and big-box stores do. Holiday spending totals could be affected regionally by the recent hurricane activity in the south or by other factors specific to your neck of the woods. Use your familiarity with the community to guide your holiday strategy, so that you can connect with local shoppers for the holiday season and beyond.

Bill Brunelle is co-founder of Independent We Stand, a cause-marketing campaign sponsored by STIHL, which is dedicated to educating communities about the importance and strong economic benefits of supporting locally owned businesses. Independent We Stand inspires small business owners across the country to celebrate their locally owned status and help consumers understand the importance of supporting them.

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