Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
Race and Economy

Black-owned businesses seeing an increase in sales during protests

Samantha Fields Jun 16, 2020
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images

When Tiffany Griffin first saw people flooding social media with posts about supporting Black-owned businesses, she thought it was just a fad. 

Even when she saw an actual spike in sales at her candle company, Bright Black, she thought it would just be a one day thing. 

But the next day, and the day after that, people kept placing orders. So many that she and her husband, who runs the business with her, had to temporarily shut down the site so they could keep up. 

“We started seeing this exponential increase in sales, which was bittersweet,” Griffin said. They were glad to have the revenue, certainly, but “obviously as human beings, and as Black Americans, we would want our gain to be under different circumstances.”

As millions of people have taken to the streets in recent days to protest systemic racism, police brutality and the killing of George Floyd, posts encouraging people to support Black-owned businesses and restaurants have gone viral on social media. Some have gotten hundreds of thousands of likes and shares, and many Black business owners are seeing those likes and shares translate into notable increases in sales. 

As interest in books on anti-racism has skyrocketed over the last couple of weeks, Eyeseeme African American Children’s Bookstore has seen a huge increase in online sales, said owner Jeffrey Blair. “We were very well-positioned in order to help fulfill that need.” (Courtesy Jeffrey Blair)

“We’re seeing that people aren’t just sharing and sending it on, but we have people that are actually making sales, actually sending emails, ‘yeah, I saw this on social media and I want to do my part in order to support what you guys are doing, and to support Black business,’” said Jeffrey Blair, who owns Eyeseeme African American Children’s Bookstore in University City, Missouri with his wife, Pamela. “I’ve never seen that before, to that degree. It’s been a substantial increase in online sales.”

It has always been harder for Black people in the U.S. to start and grow businesses ⁠— harder to get loans, harder to get investors, harder to access lines of credit. Just 4% of business owners are Black. That was before the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black people in almost every way, both health-wise and economically. 

In the COVID-era, many Black business owners have struggled to get loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. And just three months into the pandemic, about 40% of Black-owned businesses in the country have already closed, likely permanently, compared to less than 20% of white-owned businesses. 

That is part of why, for Blair, it is so powerful to see so many people from around the country not just sharing posts on Instagram and Twitter about supporting Black-owned businesses, but actually doing it. And not just buying books ⁠— many about anti-racism and how to be an ally ⁠— but also reaching out and asking whether they can volunteer at the store, or how else they can help. 

“Seeing the protests at first it was like, okay, we’ve kind of seen this before… But then seeing the size of the protests, and seeing the call to action not just be about specifics of the George Floyd case, but also the specifics about removing racism and oppression not just in criminal justice, but in all areas,” Blair said. “And a part of that is supporting Black businesses, and us seeing it translate into sales? It’s like wow, this is something different that’s taking place. I hope it sustains itself. Because it really is powerful.”

Constance Simms-Kincaid, who owns 5 Loaves Eatery, a small cozy nook of a restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, is seeing a spike in business, too. Most of it is coming through delivery services like Uber Eats and GrubHub, which is new.

“I think that there’s a lot of new people that’s trying us out and that’s giving us a chance, and that’s a good thing,” she said. 

5 Loaves Eatery in Chicago, which had lost a lot of business because of the pandemic, has seen an increase in the last couple of weeks since protests began. (Courtesy Constance Simms-Kincaid)

Business is a lot better on the weekends than during the week, and it’s still way below where it was before the pandemic, but there has been a noticeable bump in the last couple of weeks since the protests began. She’s hearing that from other Black business owners she knows in Chicago, too. 

“In general the feeling is that, right now, support is out there. And that we have to not only take that in for ourselves, but also share that with other Black businesses as well,” said Simms-Kincaid, who is also doing her own posting on social media these days, to promote other local Black-owned businesses. “What it truly, truly is right now is community over competition.”

It’s not new for people in the Black community to be proactive and vocal about the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses. 

“Black folks have been talking about supporting Black businesses since post-Reconstruction,” Griffin said. “I think the difference is non-Black people en mass thinking about supporting Black business as a political tool or a political act, and I think that’s good.”

The question, though, is will it last? Once the protests ebb, or end, once people’s social media feeds are no longer flooded with posts about racial justice and buying from Black-owned businesses, will the support dry up? 

Simms-Kincaid hopes not. 

“In order for us to have a strong community, we have to have strong businesses within that community … and now I think is the time to do that because people are paying attention to our businesses more,” she said. “I hope that this is something that is gonna be like a snowball, where it just gets larger and larger.”

Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies social movements, said that while the initial spike in sales many Black-owned businesses are seeing right now will inevitably fall somewhat, she expects it won’t disappear completely. 

“There’s so much of this nation-wide consensus that this is an urgent issue now that I think, in the long run, we will see some changes,” she said. “We’re social creatures, we’re cultural creatures. And if we’re seeing this message that Black businesses have been historically marginalized, and it’s been harder for them for all the historical injustices that we’re talking about, just having that in your mind could have people change their behavior in the long run.”

While buying a candle from a Black-owned business isn’t going to end systemic racism, “it can change a person’s life. It can change a family’s life, it can change a business’s life, it can raise consciousness and awareness,” Tiffany Griffin said. (Courtesy Tiffany Griffin)

For all the talk about how just posting on social media isn’t enough, how it can be performative, how it’s more important to take actual action, Tufekci says it actually is a critical part of social movements. When millions of people declare, even just online, to their family and friends that Black lives matter, or encourage their friends to support Black-owned businesses, it can cause a seismic shift.

“It’s really important to understand, in a human society what you call performance, which is people expressing their statement, is really powerful,” Tufekci said. “That’s how we think, that’s how we change our minds. So it’s not everything, but the fact that it’s so widespread is something important, and it’s something positive. Rather than being dismissed, the question should be okay, what else is next?”

For a lot of people so far, one of those next steps has been buying something ⁠— books, a candle, a meal ⁠— from a Black-owned business. 

“When you have such big, interconnected and incredibly complex problems like systemic racism, it can be very overwhelming because one person can’t change a system,” Griffin said. And while buying a candle from a Black-owned business isn’t going to end systemic racism, it’s also not insignificant, especially if a lot of people start doing it and keep doing it.

“It can change a person’s life. It can change a family’s life, it can change a business’s life, it can raise consciousness and awareness,” she said. “Those types of acts can be catalytic. And I do feel like it was something tangible that people felt like they could do.”

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