While holiday retail seasons have long been dominated by big-box retailers, small businesses and one-of-a-kind goods are in big demand this year.
This weekend's Small Business Saturday attracted its biggest crowds and sales. Shoppers spent $16.2 billion at local retailers and restaurants across the country. That's nearly $2 billion more than $14.3 billion spent in 2014, or a gain of more than 13 percent compared to last year, according to data from American Express and the National Federation of Independent Business' Consumer Insights Survey.
The number of Small Business Saturday shoppers also gained 8 percent to 95 million from last year's 88 million. More local businesses also participated this year, with 4,100 businesses, chambers of commerce and local groups supporting the "Shop Small" day in their communities.
Shoppers returning to Main Street, in full force, is a good barometer of a recovering U.S. economy. "It's very encouraging to see small businesses participate every year, and more shoppers giving local entrepreneurs a chance to compete for their business," said NFIB President and CEO Dan Danner in a prepared statement. "Americans are returning to Main Street for the things they need and ultimately that's a very healthy economic trend."
Plus, shoppers are willing to spend a little more to support their local retailers. About 80 percent of consumers report more willingness to spend a bit more on items from mom-and-pop shops, according to American Express.
The demand for local products is in line with changing consumer tastes, said Sonia Lapinsky, director in consulting group AlixPartners' retail practice. As mall traffic has declined and shoppers continue to flock to the Web to purchase goods, shoppers want to make a connection when hitting up a brick-and-mortar retailer.
"The consumer we see is looking to connect more with the retailer they're patronizing," Lapinksy said. "They want experiential engagements as well as connections via social media, and I think Small Business Saturday gives them that as well."
It's this personal feel that big-name retailers and celebrity entrepreneurs are trying to replicate, sometimes using the pop-up business model.
Pop-up businesses are booming, with a projected $2.2 billion in sales this holiday season, according to PopUp Republic, an industry watcher. This year Lands' End, American Girl, West Elm, Nike and even Tesla Motors are trying their hand at pop-ups.
The success of Small Business Saturday could be a "warning to big retailers that they have to change their strategies," Lapinksy said. "Everything has to be much more localized if they want to compete."