CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tina Nardoci knows it s the malls and big-box stores that will draw the massive crowds this weekend. But she hopes bargain hunters will look to local shops like hers for frenzy-free holiday shopping with a personal touch.

That s why Nardoci, who co-owns the specialty gift shop Green with Envy in Plaza Midwood, is gearing up for this weekend s third-annual Small Business Saturday, a day when locally owned and operated shops, vendors and restaurants offer their own incentives.

The mall has the power... (but) then everybody will be tired and will need a place to get mimosas and chocolate, said Nardoci. And that s just what she was offering Friday afternoon, with a fresh batch planned for Saturday.

The annual Small Business Saturday, created by American Express in 2010, helps locally owned shops grab their own share of the spotlight between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. That s critical for shops that depend on the holiday rush for much of their annual business.

A study commissioned by American Express estimates that more than 100 million people shopped small on the Thanksgiving weekend event last year. And of those shoppers, 70 percent said they plan to spend an average of $100 on Small Business Saturday this year.

Because many independent retailers already operate at a thin profit margin, these shop-local events can make a bottom-line difference during the make-or-break months of November and December, said Dave Dillworth, deputy director of the Small Business Administration s Charlotte office.

At least 100 small businesses in Charlotte are participating in the Small Business Saturday event, according to American Express.

Chris Wysocki, co-owner of the knitting store Yarnhouse in Charlotte s NoDa neighborhood, said the seasonal nature of the knitting business makes his cold-weather sales more important than ever.

The holidays are going to make or break you, especially in my business, said Wysocki, who gets 20 percent to 25 percent of his annual sales during November and December.

Nardoci agrees. She says she gets one-fifth of her annual sales at Green With Envy during the month of December alone. Every small retailer waits for Christmas, she said.

But when economy-weary consumers are shopping for the best deals and big-box stores are slashing prices lower than ever, it can be a struggle for small businesses to compete. So they offer other perks.

While many department stores charge for gift-wrapping, Nardoci custom wraps every gift for free, and she has a wall of multicolored tissue paper and ribbon behind the cash register. She says she once gift-wrapped 250 items in one day.

Lydia Stern, owner of the Plaza Midwood bead shop Beadlush, said she s offering a progressive sale on Small Business Saturday: the more you spend, the bigger the discount.

But it s not as big a promotion as it used to be.

We re not doing as much as we ve done in previous years just because it s been a tough year, Stern said.

What Stern promises, however, is a personal touch something not always in abundance at big-box retailers in the heat of the shopping season.

Research shows small businesses nationwide may get a holiday boost from growing public interest in supporting local businesses.

Earlier this year, a survey of 1,768 independent business owners by the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that local retailers in cities with an active shop local campaign saw holiday sales growth of 8.5 percent in 2011, compared to 5.2 percent for local retailers in regions without the initiatives. That s important because small businesses lack the advertising budgets of the big-box stores.

Nearly half of all independent merchants plan to incorporate Small Business Saturday into their holiday marketing plans, according to a recent study released by the National Federation of Independent Business and American Express.

The Small Business Saturday Facebook page, which encourages consumers to shop local and offers advice to small-business owners, has more than 3.1 million likes, up from 2.4 million likes last year.

Harold Jordan and Nicole Blackmon, co-owners of The Blank Canvas, a men s and women s clothing boutique that opened last month in South End, are also using social media tools Pinterest and Instagram to highlight their merchandise and holiday specials. They re offering free breakfast to Small Business Saturday shoppers.

At Beadlush, Stern hopes the personal touch pays off throughout the holidays. Customers can get one-on-one help designing jewelry for loved ones. And for Small Business Saturday, customers can sample refreshments and take a class in beading.

Come out and support us, Stern said. We need you.

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