If you're an independent retailer, no one has to tell you that things are tough.

A study by American Express and research firm Civic Economics via the Small Business Saturday website reports "the market share captured by locally owned independent businesses declined from 59 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2009." On the bright side, over the past 14 years, home values increased 50 percent more in residential neighborhoods served by a successful independent business district. So clearly, small businesses are valued—they're good for neighborhoods, good for property owners, and they're supported by healthy "buy local" efforts across the United States. How can you capitalize on that good will and sell more this holiday season?

Joseph E. Nerkowski, owner of Holiday Lighting, Inc., a retailer specializing in outdoor decorative lighting that's based in Ulby, Michigan, says his local sales have been constant over the past year. Like 75 percent of retailers surveyed, he's stressing customer service as a main differentiating factor between him and the big guys. "Because we're also contractors, we use what we sell, so we know the quality of the products, and if we're not happy, we see that problem first.  We make sure what we sell is a good experience for their customers—they get quality and longevity in their lighting." That customer-service focus must be working, as Nerkowski has hired five staffers through January and he is reworking his website, hoping for more sales.

Some additional good news from small business community Manta, which surveyed 792 small retailers: 38 percent of small businesses are reporting sales up from last year. Thirty six percent report flat sales and 26 percent say sales are down. Of course, being small businesses, about 50 percent are optimistic that things will improve.

For those who like to make their own luck, another tip to improve those sales is to use social media tools. Seventy-five percent of those responding to the survey are reaching out online to connect with customers this season. Manta's vice president of marketing, Greg Garrick, says that more than 40 percent of Manta members have added Facebook or other social networks to their online profile and many others are using paid search on Google or Bing to reach additional customers. Garrick noted that the small retailers can show people that they improve their communities by hiring locally, supporting little leagues and local charities. "When customers shop locally, there are also green benefits of not having to have things shipped across the country," he says.

Giving customers incentives to shop on a specific day may help drive sales. Small Business Saturday is intended to be the day after "Black Friday" (this year it's November 26), on which shoppers are implored to support local merchants. As part of a promotion this year, FedEx is supporting Small Business Saturday by giving away "Shop Small" gift cards on the FedEx Facebook page starting November 1 at 1 p.m. Eastern.

For merchants, the American Express OPEN Small Business Saturday site and Shop Small Facebook page point to educational tools and videos hosted by small business owners. "Additionally, the Facebook site has a tool to help you create your first Facebook ad," says Mary Ann Fitzmaurice Reilly, senior vice president of American Express OPEN. "We're also giving away $100 worth of free Facebook ads to thousands of merchants, and there are still packages left. With Google we’re helping businesses to create their story. And we're helping businesses create a Twitter follow buttons for their sites." Another key giveaway is "Get Your Buzz," a monitoring tool that helps small businesses track all their online presences. These tools can help businesses advertise both locally and globally.

Finally, OPEN's Fiitzmaurice Reilly mentioned several towns where merchants are teaming up to make the Small Business Saturday an event to get people down to the shopping area. Sounds like a great opportunity for merchants to pair up with compatible partners (like a food store and a cookware place) to each get more sales by promoting the others.

Also worth mentioning are Inc.com articles Social Media Tips You Can Learn from Big Business and 7 Tips for Effective E-Commerce as additional resources to help small businesses get the word out.

What are you doing to make your local business more successful this holiday season? Share your tips and strategies with us in the comments.