As holiday shopping begins, Black business owners hope shoppers don’t forget them

April Showers (her real name), a self-described “serial entrepreneur” much of her life, looks at 2020 as a paradox.

George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the ensuing social justice movement across the country were “painful and exhausting. Very troubling and a moment in time we won’t forget,” she said.

For a Black businesswoman, though, the subsequent impact of the protests following Floyd’s death heightened awareness of vast social inequities and inspired the #BuyBlack movement, which encouraged support of Black-owned businesses.

In June 2020, Canadian fashion designer and activist Aurora James reasoned on social media that Black people represent 15% of the “American population and we need to represent 15%” of retailers’ “shelf space.” Companies followed her suggestion, bringing Black-owned brands into their stores and inviting collaborations at unprecedented rates.

Soon, Showers’ online business, Afro Unicorn — a brand she started in 2019 to celebrate the beauty of Black people — tallied record sales. Her products feature unicorns in various shades of brown on clothing, bedding, backpacks and more.

A considerable number of her customers were white shoppers who supported the cause.

“My e-commerce business took completely off during that time,” said Showers, who lives in Los Angeles. “It went crazy. Remember, it wasn’t just the uprising after George Floyd’s death. It was Covid, too, and there were all kinds of situations where people got breaks on paying their electricity or rent. So they had extra money, and they were spending. And they were buying Black.”

But as so-called Black Friday arrives, with sales and promotions for the holidays just about everywhere, Black entrepreneurs who spoke to NBC News said they hardly feel the support of 2020. In fact, they say, they feel abandoned.

“It’s tough,” Showers said. Because of the #BuyBlack surge, her business went from online to store shelves. In August 2020, Walmart, as part of its push to support Black businesses, offered her space in 3,800 of its stores across the country. Then came Target, JCPenney, Kohl’s, HomeGoods and NovaKids, giving her the unique distinction of being a Black woman with a licensed character brand in major retail stores.

“It was amazing, but it would not have happened without that Buy Black movement,” she said.

But as the calls to support Black businesses faded during the pandemic, so did the number of customers, creating a struggle for many Black owners. In 2020, as an example of the fluctuation, Groupon searches for “Black-owned” increased nearly 400%, according to a survey — a testament to the force of the Buy Black challenge. But just a few months later, when the catch phrase faded, so did searches and revenue, the study said.

Showers’ products are on shelves competing against major brands like Disney, Marvel and Nickelodeon. Those retailers “grade me on the same level,” Showers said, “so I can’t even look at the glass being half-empty. I can’t say, ‘Oh, so after George Floyd, things have slowed down.’ I’m in here now. I have to figure out how to get all of the 12% of Black people who shop at Walmart to buy Afro Unicorn.”

It would be easier if there were another national call to support Black businesses. “It needs to come back,” Showers said. “The problems that made them and everyone buy Black in 2020 still exist today. Can we rely solely on Black support to survive? Put it like this: If we do not continue to support Black businesses, especially in retail, you won’t see them anymore. That’s real.”

Nicole Mitchell had visions of creating a versatile sportswear line before 2020. Seeing the groundswell of Black business support inspired her to act.

She launchedGoddess Athleisure this year, featuring gear that can be worn during workouts and socially. Mitchell, of Detroit, spent two years working with a California design team to create leggings and fashionable tops that suited her vision.

“So this has been a labor of love for me, hand-picking every element of the products, not just slapping a name on it,” said Mitchell, who eventually would like to drop a swimsuit line. “I worked really hard and labored over every detail to give our community a high-quality product.”

Witnessing the reaction to the call to buy Black three years ago “was inspiring,” she said.

“It was great to see other people who were not Black actually promoting and buying Black and then actually promoting it to other people and encouraging people outside of our community to support and buy Black. I loved seeing that,” Mitchell said.

And she’d love to see a similar movement now. Mitchell runs her business while working three nights a week as a veterinarian at a 24-hour emergency hospital. And because she financed her startup without bank loans, she said, it’s paramount that support from her community holds her up.

“I’m going to have some Black Friday sales, like everyone else,” Mitchell said. “But that’s unfortunate, because as a relatively new small business, we can’t afford the discounts.”

Mitchell said she has noticed a lack of support in the years since “the tragedies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. That support that was about solidarity is not here anymore.”

She said relying on Black support alone can be challenging, because “we’ll spend big money on designer labels; we are the consumers that spend money. But when it comes to us, we often have to prove that we’re worthy or that we’re quality.”

But Dionne Mahaffey, the founder of Culture Greetings, an on-demand custom greeting card company, said the 2020 spending spree was more of a moment than a movement. She started her company in 2018 because “of the dearth of cards with Black imagery on them. I wanted to innovate the industry.”

With Cultured Greetings, a customer can create text or images and have the designed cards emailed to recipients — or they can have the cards sent via the mail — all from home. Physical cards can be generated and picked up at one of more than 9,000 Walgreens in the U.S. in less than 30 minutes.

In 2020, her business increased its sales. But it didn’t last.

“A lot of what companies did was very performative,” said Mahaffey, a software engineer for 30 years in Atlanta. “A lot of the support we received has waned.”

Shoppers and retailers stay true to old habits, she said.

“A lot of business owners who saw their income triple in 2020 eventually saw it fall far below what it had been even before the support happened,” Mahaffey added. “So it was a moment. A good moment, but a moment.”

The Supreme Court’s striking down of affirmative action seemed to signal a broader shift in attitudes, beyond elite college admissions, Mahaffey said. The same shift in diversity efforts is happening for Black-owned businesses.

“Everyone was very much into diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said. “But now we see companies are comfortable not focusing on DEI because, from a political perspective, it’s not popular. It’s all unsettling. The messaging changed as it relates to what it means to be inclusive. And it has impacted Black businesses as much as anyone.”