The afternoon before Thanksgiving, Steve Snider, district manager of the Lake Merritt-Uptown Association, was walking along Broadway Street, hand-delivering copies of a newly designed shopping guide to stores participating in Plaid Friday. Launched as an alternative to Black Friday mob scenes and buying frenzies, Plaid Friday has become vital to the success of local small businesses in Oakland, according to Snider.
“Black Friday doesn’t represent anything positive about the holiday, ” said Kerri Johnson, founder of Plaid Friday and owner of Marion and Rose’s Workshop, a home decoration store on 9th Street.
Johnson launched the event in 2009 to promote her former store. Hoping to enlist others, she contacted other small businesses in Oakland. To her surprise, she found that a lot of them weren’t opening on the day after Thanksgiving. Their attitude, Johnson said, was, “Why bother?” Trying to compete with big box stores, malls, and shopping websites seemed like a waste of time.
Meanwhile, a more extreme response to Black Friday had begun to take hold in California. Started by the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, the counter-campaign urged people to stop buying altogether. “To boycott everything is very negative to me,” said Johnson. “Instead of closing down, why not turn [the day] into something positive?”
During the first year, Johnson persuaded twenty local stores to join the effort. She chose the name Plaid Friday because, as her website says, she wanted “[to weave] the individual threads of small businesses together to create a strong fabric.” The result was surprisingly good. Revenue at Johnson’s store, for example, tripled the average daily amount for the year. Since then, the number of participating stores has more than doubled.
One of the challenges for small business is gaining visibility. According to Oakland Grown, a Plaid Friday sponsor and shop-local advocacy organization, annual sales have increased up to 5% in communities with active local campaigns running year-round. Some retail shops have reported even greater increases.
Oakland Grown has been helping local merchants collectively market and advertise before the holiday season starts. “Teaming up really helps,” said Rachel Konte, owner of OwlNWood, on Grand Avenue. “None of this is something an independent store can do on its own.”
Konte joined Plaid Friday in 2013, and it was her best day of the year. Encouraged by last year’s results, she tried to make the event more fun this year, providing free coffee, inviting local vendors, and even setting up a DJ booth in the store.
Ninety percent of the businesses in Oakland have fewer than twenty employees, according to Aliza Gallo, Oakland’s economic development manager. That’s why the city has been supporting Plaid Friday since it started.
This year, Oakland sponsored highway billboards, advertisement on bus shelters, hundreds of posters with details on each store, along with offering free parking to shoppers, an extension of the free Saturday parking program the city runs in December.
“[Plaid Friday] underscores the importance of keeping shopping dollars in local communities at independent businesses,” said Harriet Hamilton, public information officer for the city of Oakland. “Studies have shown the economic impact to be over three times that of chain stores.”
In addition to receiving support from organizations such as Oakland Grown, small businesses can get assistance from the city’s small business center. Oakland also offers several loan programs targeted at micro-to-small businesses.
During the five years since Plaid Friday started, Steve Snider, of the Lake Merritt-Uptown Association, has watched numerous vacant storefronts in downtown Oakland turned into thriving independent businesses. “We take what used to be a hole in the wall and fill it,” Snider siad. Over 120 ground-floor shops, including retail stores, restaurants and cafes, have moved to the central business district, according to Snider.
In keeping with its more leisurely approach to shopping, Plaid Friday begins mid to late morning. Participating stores are not required to offer promotions, but many of them give discounts to anyone wearing plaid. This year, people wearing plaid jackets and plaid hats wandered along Broadway carrying shopping bags. Iggy S., an 18-year Oakland resident, has made Plaid Friday a family event for the past two years. “If we buy anything, it’s better to support local business,” she said.
Plaid Friday has been adopted by cities in several states, including New Hampshire, Colorado, Oregon and Nevada.