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What Obama's Surprise Shopping Trip Meant For This Small Business

In 2012, President Obama visited a local bookstore to help promote the Small Business Saturday message. One More Page Books hasn't been the same since.
November 29, 2013

For Eileen McGervey, last November 24 will always be a special day. That was when President Barack Obama made a surprise shopping trip to One More Page Books, the store she owns in Arlington, Virginia.

A Surprise Visit

Obama, accompanied by daughters Sasha and Malia, only stayed a little over a half an hour in a visit intended to promote local businesses for Small Business Saturday. He purchased 15 children’s books as holiday gifts for family members, but more significant for the business was the effect the commander in chief’s whirlwind shopping trip had on other members of the book-buying public.

Countless potential customers learned of the then 2-year-old business when One More Page Books was featured in hundreds of news articles and broadcasts. These appeared all over the world and the enormous lift to the store’s profile had a powerful effect on sales. “We were up about 45 percent over Christmas the year before,” McGervey says. “And I’d say his visit was certainly part of that.”

The exposure was worldwide. Some of McGervey's customers there that day got calls from friends and family, as far away as Italy and China, who had spotted them on TV coverage of the event. But some of the biggest impact was local. Many customers from her immediate area have told her they did not know of the store until they heard about it in coverage of Obama’s shopping trip.

McGervey says the company continues to reap benefits from Obama’s visit. A display of photos in the store commemorates the event and is itself a draw for shoppers. “Even now, a year later, not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t come in and look at the pictures of the president, or tell us that’s how they heard about us,” she says.

Struggle With Big-Box Sellers

In the struggle to compete against online and big-box booksellers, McGervey’s windfall demonstrates how effective an event like Small Business Sunday can be. It reminds shoppers of the special services and unique environments offered by small businesses. And it reminds business owners of how they need to differentiate themselves. “We have to do things that they can’t do,” McGervey says.

Among the ways she tries to differentiate herself from bigger rivals is to emphasize in-store events such as author signings and readings. One More Page Books averages three to four of these each week. This Small Business Saturday, McGervey is taking it to a new level. Instead of simply having authors sign books or read from their works, she has recruited a group of local authors to come in and serve as personal shoppers for patrons, helping them pick out books and offering suggestions.

Of course, author visits are typically arranged far in advance in cooperation with authors and publishers. Obama’s call was a total surprise and McGervey had no input on whether she was selected. She only learned of it about 10 minutes before the president arrived, when security personnel alerted her to the impending visit. Because the destination of the president’s trip was not announced beforehand, the advance security was minimal, she said. The main thing was that no more shoppers were allowed into the store until after the president left. Those already there were invited to stay and shop alongside Obama and his daughters.

The only negative to the visit was that the store was effectively closed for about a half-hour, she said. But that was more than made up for by the business generated by Obama’s presence. By the time he left, she said, a crowd of people who got wind of what was going on had gathered outside. Many of these came in afterward to discuss it, and some stayed to shop as well.

For future bookstore owners who may get an unexpected visit from a president, McGervey’s only advice is to enjoy it. The spontaneous nature of the Small Business Saturday shopping expeditions, which also included senior administration officials the last couple of years, means it's not something to plan for. And business owners have no influence on whether they will be chosen for a White House shopping trip.

The only regret McGervey has from the experience is that she did not immediately appreciate how significant it might be to hang on to any souvenirs. “I think we would have saved his receipt as a memento,” she says. “But somebody got rid of it.”

The White House has not announced whether this year’s Small Business Saturday will include a chief executive-led gift-buying journey to a local small retailer. However, one of McGervey’s recollections after last year suggests the practice could spread to other places and governments. An official from the United Kingdom dropped by not long after Obama’s visit, she says. He had been meeting with Obama, was considering doing a Small Business Saturday-like event in the U.K., and wanted to talk to her about the experience.

McGervey’s report, then and now, was overwhelmingly positive. A former marketing consultant for high-tech companies, she left the corporate world to become an independent bookseller three years ago. Anything that helps her stay in the business she quickly came to love is, in her book, a winner. “A bad day at the bookstore," she says, "is better than a good day at a corporate job.”

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Photo: Getty Images