The most-recent Small Business Saturday, held at the end of November, didn't have tremendous success in getting people out to smaller retailers. One possible reason: small business is hard to find in much of the United States. In half of America's ZIP codes, at least 80 percent of the nearest stores are big retailers.

The overwhelming flood of ads for Small Business Saturday (invented by American Express in 2010 and heavily promoted in the interim) inspired The Wire to figure out how feasible it actually was, this vision of walking down a neatly-swept main street and popping into various local shops. And the best way to figure that out is to go to a big business: Google.

With a list the country's 40,000-plus ZIP codes in-hand, I ran them all through the search engine to find the first 20 results for "shopping near [ZIP code]" within 1 kilometer. That resulted in a database of over a million store names, which were then filtered to see which appeared the most often. That then allowed me to figure out how many ZIP codes offered easy access to small versus big businesses.

After weeding out bad results and other factors (like eliminating those ZIP codes with fewer than 10 responses), I determined the percentage of small businesses at each location. The distribution looks like this, showing the number of ZIP codes within each percentage range.

For the nearly 40,000 ZIP codes included in the data, the average percentage of small businesses in nearby results on Google was 27 percent — but the median was only 21 percent. That means that in at least half of the ZIP codes I looked at, four-out-of-five nearby stores were big chain stores. (To determine what made a store "big," I counted any store name that appeared more than 20 times in our results, which accounts for small businesses sometimes being near — and showing in the results for — multiple ZIP codes.)

In only 12 percent of the ZIP codes were small businesses a majority of the responses. And there were interesting geographic aspects to that 12 percent.

The map below shows the ZIP codes that met one of two characteristics: either it had zero or one small businesses (red dots), or its results showed a majority of small business (blue dots, bigger with a higher percentage of small business). Zoom in, click around.

This doesn't include, for example, places where small business comprised 40 percent of the results. But you'll notice it shows a preponderance of small business-heavy ZIP codes along the coasts and clusters of big retailer-heavy ones in the Midwest and rural areas in the East. The rural areas east of the Rockies are heavy with big box-retailers; in the rural west, small businesses are more common.

What will not surprise you is the top retailers that were returned from the search. The chains with the most results (once related brands, e.g. Walmart Supercenter, were aggregated) were as follows.

  1. Walmart, 51,576 matches
  2. Dollar General, 32,664
  3. Target, 25,101
  4. Family Dollar, 23,289
  5. Kmart, 22,375
  6. JC Penney, 19,458
  7. Sears, 17,945
  8. Dollar Tree, 17,344
  9. Kohls, 16,968
  10. TJ Maxx, 11,116
  11. Sam's Club, 9,759
  12. Macy's, 8,986
  13. Big Lots, 8,533
  14. Kroger, 7,018
  15. Marshalls, 6,818
  16. Home Depot, 6,486
  17. Burlington Coat Factory, 6,338
  18. Hobby Lobby, 5,685
  19. Walgreens, 5,386
  20. Costco, 5,271

Small business Saturday is a noble idea, to be sure, whatever American Express' motivations. But in a retail environment choked with major retailers, it's much easier said than done.