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'Small Business Saturday'-- Marketing Ruse Or Do-Gooder Campaign?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) - 'Small Business Saturday' is set for Nov. 30 this year, the day after Black Friday.

The campaign, sponsored by American Express (AXP - Get Report) and now in its fourth year, is intended to boost to sales for independently-owned business of the non-corporate, Main Street economy.

It all sounds great, but is this just a feel-good marketing effort for the credit-card operator, or a campaign that truly helps smaller-sized businesses?

"Do I think it's a marketing ploy? Of course. But they've also created a culture that's made people aware of shopping small every day and the importance of it," says Alison Dodson Anderson, owner of A. Dodson's, an eclectic lifestyle store selling a variety of products from apparel to home decor in Suffolk, Va. Dodson Anderson just opened a second location two months ago. "I don't really care where the movement came from I'm just glad it's here."

Dodson Anderson says Small Business Saturday is the third busiest shopping day of the year at her store, behind a biannual open house the store hosts.

"People are conscious about the day," she says hopefully, noting a recent Facebook status she posted on the store's page, which got more than 100 likes, a big response for a typical post by the store. 

Small-business owners have quite an uphill battle this Thanksgiving weekend and all holiday season long, when up against big-box retailers like Best Buy (BBY) and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) as well as online behemoths like Amazon (AMZN) luring customers with cheap deals and fast, free shipping. The shortened holiday selling season this year has retailers in a further promotion frenzy to boost sales.

American Express situated the day smack in the middle of Black Friday and Cyber Monday to encourage consumers to "shop small."

Plenty of naysayers are pointing fingers to American Express, such as the Main Street Alliance, a national network of small-business owners, who criticize the credit card company for "championing small-business shopping," while at the same time having the highest credit card swipe fees at 3.5%, among other things, it says.

Instead, the organization wants to encourage shoppers to pay for their purchases with cash at small businesses this season.

But does it really matter whether it's marketing to get more people to use their American Express cards or a genuine do-good initiative? Because in the end, the growing awareness of the day is becoming a movement that isn't just about using American Express cards.

Last year consumers spent $5.5 billion at independent merchants during Small Business Saturday. (AmEx cardmember transactions specifically rose 21% compared to the 2011 event, AmEx says.)

While the number is small compared to the $59.1 billion spent over last year's Thanksgiving weekend, according to the National Retail Federation, the point is -- the initiative is working.

"We feel strongly that it's driving traffic," says Scott Krugman, a spokesman for American Express OPEN. "We're hearing nothing but positive things from small-business owners. [But it's] still in its infancy."

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