ST. LOUIS — Ross Hunter rang up an out-of-town customer, peppering her with questions about her travels and stay.
His Central West End store, Provisions St. Louis, is full of high-end goods: Gentlemen's barware, Alpaca scarves, books carefully stacked on wooden tables. These gifts, he said, are meant to give his customers a very specific feeling.
"I like to know there's a story," Hunter said. "I think that a lot of people forget that retail is an experience."
In the face of booming e-commerce and consolidating mega-stores, small brick-and-mortar businesses across St. Louis and the world are hunting for what makes them unique. And they say they've found it: Shoppers visit them not just for the gifts, but for the memories.
Retail forecasts put holiday sales at $730 billion this year, up about 4% from 2018. Online spending on Thanksgiving Day hit a record $4.2 billion this year, according to data from Adobe Inc., the California software company.
And thousands got in line on Thursday and Friday for big-time deals at big-box stores.
"I think it’s become a really big social event, as much as a shopping event," said Chris White, a store manager at Kohl's in Crestwood.
He said on Black Friday he sees customers coming in with family members from out of town, hopping from store to store throughout the day, sometimes in matching sweaters or eccentric hats.
Small businesses are trying to tap into that sense of tradition. They've latched on to their own event, Small Business Saturday, a national campaign started by American Express in 2010. Area neighborhoods and business districts have embraced it, encouraging shoppers to their main streets.
Michelle Barron, who owns the Book House in Maplewood, said some businesses spend all year planning for Small Business Saturday. Barron’s family members, plus six staff members will help out during the holiday weekend.
Barron said the store makes 70%-80% of its income in the last four weeks of the year.
Barron said the location on Manchester Road gets more foot traffic than the big, Victorian house in Rock Hill that housed the store from 1986 until 2013.
"We go down to fumes the months before," Barron said, as the store puts in orders to build up inventory. "This makes or breaks us every year."
Julio Zegarra-Ballon, owner of Zee Bee Market, said he is helped by the business and community events that take place practically every month in Maplewood, like Small Business Saturday, or the "Coffee Crawl" slated for spring.
"This is how we support our families, this is how we employ people to work in our community," Zegarra-Ballon said.
Deanna Lester, owner of The Candle Fusion Studio, with locations in St. Charles and St. Louis' Central West End, said her business offers something that is hard to replicate online.
"Because we are such a unique business, we attract more shoppers or guests into our brick and mortar stores than we do online," Lester said. "It's hard to smell over the computer screen."
Lester said she's also noticed a change in the way people give presents.
"People are looking more for an experience, versus just an item," Lester said.
And some of those experiences are even smaller than local shops:
One Small Business Saturday event will showcase products made by immigrants and refugees.
At the event, organized by nonprofit Welcome Neighbor STL, people will sell jewelry, clothing and other items that they made, or that their families sent to them.
None of the vendors have their own stores or restaurants, said Welcome Neighbor founder Jessica Bueler, but some of them frequent craft shows and farmers' markets. As it gets further into winter, there are fewer and fewer of those opportunities.
Alifa Alahmad, who is originally from Syria, will sell baklava at the event.
Alahmad, who spoke no English when she arrived in St. Louis three years ago, was connected with someone through Bueler's nonprofit who helped her adjust, and handle everyday tasks like making appointments.
She started selling baklava and other food over the summer in Tower Grove Park, and hopes to one day have her own restaurant.
The event will take place Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at 5021 Adkins Avenue, in south St. Louis.