While big store chains have announced price-cutting plans, downtown organizations in central Maine will try to entice holiday shoppers with a mix of family-friendly festivities and programs aimed at encouraging people to buy local.

The efforts highlight how local officials are try new strategies to get people to shop at downtown stores.

In Gardiner, the local Main Street organization is hosting a two-hour shopping blitz Saturday afternoon where participants will gather in Johnson Park before fanning out to the various downtown stores.

The program is part of the national Small Business Saturday — an event started in 2010 and promoted by American Express to turn the Saturday after Black Friday and before Cyber Monday into a day of shopping at local retailers.

Participants in Gardiner will begin at the downtown park at 2:30 p.m. and meet back up at 4:30 p.m. at the Vintage Wine Bar to compare hauls and receipts. The people who spent the most and bought the most variety of gifts will each win $20 gift certificates for use in most downtown businesses, said Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street.

“Instituting some competitive shopping, which should be fun,” he said.

Some businesses will also offer deals on Saturday, Wright said. The city is holding its tree lighting ceremony in the downtown park on Sunday, as well as other holiday-themed events throughout the month. Throughout December, the organization will be hiding a stuffed elf in a downtown business. The first person to find the toy and post on Gardiner Main Street’s Facebook page is entered in a drawing for a gift basket from downtown merchants, and the elf finds a new hiding spot, Wright said.

Tree lighting ceremonies, holiday parades and other events, like in Gardiner, are popular tools for downtown organizations to draw people and wallets downtown. Main Street Skowhegan is hosting the annual Holiday Stroll and parade on Dec. 6 and 7, and Waterville Main Street has its Parade of Light Friday evening and a downtown shopping day Dec. 7.

The newly hired downtown manager in Augusta said Saturday’s tree lighting ceremony and parade will serve as a launch for the organization’s efforts to encourage people to shop locally.

“It’s a chance for us to bring people into the downtown,” Augusta Downtown Alliance Executive Director Steve Pecukonis said. “I’m sure there are people in our community, our region (that) don’t get to downtown very often.”

Nationally, sales on Black Friday, a day of deep discounts from big-box retailers, have more doubled in the last seven years, rising to nearly $60 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Last year the online sale day counterpart, Cyber Monday, saw the highest e-commerce shopping day in history, according to ComScore, at nearly $1.5 billion.

Small Business Saturday, held on the Saturday between the two, is billed as a day dedicated to local shopping. People aware of the event spent $5.5 billion with independent merchants last year, the first year tracked, according to the National Federation of Independent Business and American Express.

Augusta won’t be holding any Small Business Saturday-themed events because it falls on the day of the tree lighting ceremony and parade, but Pecukonis said he’s encouraging merchants and other people to talk with friends and family about trying to shop local to keep idea in the forefront.

He said even if local businesses don’t have a price advantage, they offer value in terms of customer service and the positive economic effects of spending money locally.

“You’re not going to find your 50-inch flat-screen (TV) in the downtown, but what you are going to find is the unique jewelry items, those unique special interest items,” including gifts cards to restaurants and service providers, Pecukonis said.

“They’ve got their niche. We’ve got our niche,” he added. “We’ve just got to make more people aware of our niche.”

Part of the awareness effort includes planning cooperative television advertising for downtown businesses, Pecukonis said. Businesses will contribute 20-second videos to a standard opening and closing clips from the Augusta Downtown Alliance to create the commercials.

He said it will make advertising on television more affordable to local merchants. Pecukonis didn’t yet know how many businesses would be taking part.

The holiday season can be a major piece of the overall sales for small businesses. Dugan Murphy, executive director of Skowhegan Main Street estimated that holiday sales make up 20 to 40 percent of annual sales for local businesses.

“It’s a really important time to buy local and support your neighbors in that way,” he said.

This year Skowhegan’s Holiday Stroll will be a little different in that the events will be spread out among multiple downtown locations, Murphy said. That will give people more of an incentive to explore the different businesses downtown, he said.

Clare Marron, owner of Monkitree in downtown Gardiner, said the increased foot traffic gives people a chance to see what she has to offer at her eclectic gift shop and art gallery.

“I think all of those events are good reminders to people that there is an active downtown. For people who don’t generally come to (the) downtown a lot, it’s an opportunity for them to see what’s here,” she said.

Holiday shopping usually accounts for about half of her overall sales, said Marron, who is also president of the Gardiner Main Street board.

She said the December art walk, this year being held Dec. 6, serves as a launch for her store’s shopping season, but the key the holiday season success in the past has been to have a variety of handmade products at every price points — for someone that wants something priced at $6 to $200 or $400, Marron said.

“I want to have all the bases covered,” she said.

Paul Koenig — 207-621-5663 [email protected] Twitter: @paul_koenig

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