So how big a deal is Small Business Saturday?

"Small Business Saturday is super-important for me, " says Juliet Sabella, who owns two businesses in Manayunk, Liberty & Lace Bridal and the Wall Cycling Studio. “It’s our busiest Saturday of the year, and the foot traffic alone is great exposure for us.”

Sabella, like many other business owners in the Philadelphia area and around the country, knows that Small Business Saturday is big.

Begun as a marketing promotion started by American Express in 2010, during the Great Recession, Small Business Saturday — to celebrate small merchants on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving — has become a national event. It’s a critical sales generator for countless small businesses, particularly brick-and-mortar stores competing against big box retailers. Last year, the Small Business Administration said that about $12 billion was spent at independent neighborhood retailers and restaurants, and most experts are expecting this year’s sales to surpass that mark.

So how to take advantage? The smartest business owners I know are already making their preparations by doing at least these five things.

Readying promotions

It’s one thing for a shopper to want to “support” a local merchant, but a little incentive can’t hurt. That’s why experienced merchants are creating sales and discounts around the day to further entice customers to come in.

Sabella is giving out special “swag bags” to customers. Ashley Peel, owner of Philadelphia Independents, a gift boutique in Old City, will provide free shipping that day and throughout the holiday season for online orders. Steve Harmer, who owns BridgetSet Sound on South Street, will be offering incentives via Small Business Saturday hashtags in his social media campaigns.

Like Harmer, many merchants are promoting through posts on Facebook and Twitter, sending out special emails to their communities, and — of course — hanging signs and posters around the store to remind customers this week of the special deals they’ll get if they come back over the weekend.

Capturing data

Small Business Saturday is a great way to generate not only immediate sales, but future sales too. Many businesses are upgrading their point of sale and loyalty applications to capture important contact data from their customers or anyone else who browses inside their store. Gift cards are also a popular way to bring customers back and — if given as holiday presents — attract new ones.

All the data collected from these tools can be used for direct marketing — emails, print and social campaigns — to keep those customers engaged and coming back during the holiday season and after. "All clients who purchase from us will always be followed up.” says Sabella.

Keeping an eye on inventory

“This is the hardest part for us,” says Peel. “There’s a fine line between not ordering enough and ordering too much, and every small business has to find their sweet spot.” Tracking inventory could be the difference between a successful and a disappointing holiday season. By now, many merchants have made their bets on which items will be the most popular over the weekend, but the merchants who have been to this rodeo before know that data is everything.

By using analytics and close tracking through their point of sale systems, managers can make more intelligent purchasing decisions as the holiday season progresses and make sure their capital is invested in the products that will give them their greatest return. Also, don’t forget about “trendy” items.

“Last year, you couldn’t go five steps without tripping over an Instapot,” says Rebecca Schultz, vice president of small business marketing at Bank of America Merchant Services. "Even if you don’t sell Instapots, think about the things that can be tangential to whatever the big hot ticket items are of the year.”

Staffing up and extending hours

Most merchants I know are expanding their store hours and building their holiday schedules through the end of the year. But that’s easier said than done, because in today’s low-unemployment economy, finding good staff remains the biggest challenge for small and large companies. Without good staff on hand, customers can get frustrated and go elsewhere.

Some of my best clients are — when they can — equipping their staff with tablets and other mobile devices to answer customer questions, suggest add-on products, and even ring up sales while they’re roaming the shop floors. They’re also offering commissions and extra pay for the long hours.

“Make sure to plan the work schedule so potential hires are aware of their expectations early on." says Tara Wolckenhauer of human resources firm ADP. “Recognition also goes a long way, even simply by recognizing good work.”

Embrace your community

There is power in numbers, and the more merchants that band together, the greater benefit they’ll receive from Small Business Saturday. That’s why many merchants in communities across the country have pressed their local business organizations, chambers of commerce, and governments to do special things on Small Business Saturday, like allowing them to display their products outside their stores, shutting down streets for pedestrians to browse, and even offering tax-free holidays.

This week, hundreds of politicians, legislatures, and governing bodies will declare their support for Small Business Saturday. Doing so is a no-brainer, and what politician wouldn’t want to show support for these 30 million voting entrepreneurs? So if you haven’t done so already, take advantage and ask these people to help.

For someone who remembers the very first Small Business Saturday — and naively mocked it as a gimmicky marketing promotion — I’m amazed at how this special day has morphed into a worldwide phenomenon. I was wrong then, but I’m not wrong now when I say that any small merchant or restaurateur that’s ignoring Small Business Saturday is likely missing out on a significant opportunity.

“I would be nuts to take off during this weekend,” says Sabella. “We go to my husband’s family on Thanksgiving, but I come back early that morning to get ready.”