American Express Goes Big on Small-Business Push

Mom-and-Pop Shops Could Benefit -- Even If They Don't Take Amex

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NEW YORK ( -- American Express, which is shunned by some small businesses looking to avoid high fees, has crafted an extensive program to promote those same businesses this holiday season.

Kenneth Chenault, American Express chairman-CEO, speaks at a press conference in New York to announce Small Business Saturday as Mayor Bloomberg looks on.
Kenneth Chenault, American Express chairman-CEO, speaks at a press conference in New York to announce Small Business Saturday as Mayor Bloomberg looks on. Credit: AP
Typically, American Express charges higher fees for acceptance of its cards than rivals Visa or MasterCard. That not only makes it hard for some small businesses to accept, but has led at least one major retailer, H&M, to discontinue acceptance of the card. Still, that hasn't stopped American Express, which has long promoted its cards to small business owners, from promoting Small Business Saturday this holiday season.

Slated for the busy weekend after Thanksgiving, American Express is promoting Saturday, Nov. 27, as a day to support local businesses. That day is expected to be the sixth-biggest sales day for retailers this holiday season and the eighth-busiest day, in terms of traffic, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

American Express did not respond to requests for comment, and it's not clear exactly how many small businesses across the country accept the cards. Ed Gilligan, vice chairman at the company, said that small businesses use American Express cards more than any other card in the country, during an interview with CNBC earlier this month. He did not clarify whether those merchants using the cards also accepted the cards, however.

To promote the program, American Express is running a national advertising campaign, as well as encouraging small business owners to register for free Facebook ads. The first 10,000 business owners to sign up will receive $100 of free Facebook advertising in the days leading up to Nov. 27. Those businesses do not necessarily have to accept American Express, Mr. Gilligan told CNBC. Facebook has also donated $500,000 in credits for those businesses to use in the future.

The movement has taken off on Facebook, where nearly 875,000 people "like" the program. American Express had committed to donating $1 to the nonprofit Girls Inc. for each like, up to $500,000. American Express is also offering consumers a monetary incentive to shop at small businesses. The first 100,000 to register their American Express card will receive a $25 statement credit for spending more than $25 at a locally-owned, independent small business that accepts American Express on Nov. 27.

"Small business is the engine of job creation in the U.S. economy," Kenneth Chenault, American Express chairman-CEO, said in a statement. "It is also among the sectors hardest hit by the recession. By spreading the word about Small Business Saturday, we can help raise awareness about the critical role small businesses play in cities and towns across the country at a time when they need support the most."

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there were nearly 28 million small businesses in the U.S. last year. And, according to The 3/50 Project, a small-business advocacy group, for every $100 spent in locally-owned, independent stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll and other expenditures.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have become a part of the holiday shopping lexicon, but other themed days have fallen flat. Mobile Tuesday, promoted in 2008, never got off the ground. And Super Saturday, the last Saturday before Christmas, is most often referred to by industry insiders, not consumers.

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