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Palo Alto shops look to Small Business Saturday

One toy store has partnered with Google Shopping Express to capture online sales

The holidays go hand-in-hand with a massive push for shopping, driven by special sales and offers.

With shoppers' focus grabbed by larger retailers, the local, independently owned stores find themselves doing more to compete.

"I think you've seen some of the major retailers start early," said Russ Cohen, executive director of the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association. "They've started even Black Friday specials before the traditional Black Friday. I don't think the smaller retailers can compete with that."

In efforts to better vie for shoppers' dollars, for the first time Palo Alto is participating in Small Business Saturday, a nationwide event dedicated to supporting small businesses. The event will take place on Saturday, Nov. 30, in downtown Palo Alto.

Small Business Saturday was launched by American Express in 2010 in the hopes of reminding people to "shop small" and support local businesses during the holiday shopping season. American Express gives cardholders a $10 credit when they spend $10 or more at participating stores. Small Business Saturday always takes place the Saturday after Thanksgiving, between Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

"We are really stressing the 'shop small' idea because that's the way we compete with the larger retailers," Cohen said. "The more you shop local, the better off your local services (funded by sales taxes) will be."

Cohen said the City of Palo Alto also moved up its annual holiday tree-lighting event to coincide with Small Business Saturday. From 4 to 7 p.m. at Lytton Plaza, there will be live music, various holiday activities and coat donations. Stores will have "Shop Small" doormats and give away free, reusable shopping bags.

Alice Deutscher, co-owner of downtown jewelry store Shady Lane, said her store will be offering a 5 to ten percent discount to everyone, not just American Express cardholders, because not all small businesses can afford American Express' higher overhead.

"It's a wonderful program, but I want to be inclusive," she said.

Other local businesses stay competitive during the holidays by doing everything the big box retailers do -- and more.

Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World, for example, started hosting its own early morning Black Friday for the first time last year and will do so again this year. The store opens at 6 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 25.

Eric Hager, who has been the manager at Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World for 26 years, said: "There's always competition."

"It's just different types of competition," he added. "Online is probably more competitive for us than, say, a big box retailer. But we also offer things that other places don't."

The sport goods and toy store offers in-store services such as free gift-wrapping. The store also participates in Google Shopping Express, an online platform that provides same-day shipping from local Bay Area businesses. Hager said Palo Alto Sport Shop and Toy World was a test store for the service, which launched in late September and is only available in the Bay Area.

The only other two Palo Alto stores listed on Google Shopping Express are Staples and Office Depot. Other participating stores, not in Palo Alto, are all chains: Target, REI, Walgreens, Staples, Costco, Whole Foods Markets, Nob Hill Foods, American Eagle Outfitters and Guitar Center.

"We always have to remain competitive, of course," Hager said. "It's not any one competitor as much as we always try new things. That's how we stay in business."

The holiday shopping season is also dictated by when the holidays themselves fall each year. A late or early Thanksgiving can make all the difference for smaller stores, said Charlie Affrunti, vice president of University Art Center in Palo Alto.

"For us, it's just hard because it hurts November a lot whenever Thanksgiving is late," he said.

Last year, Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 22. This year, it's six days later. Hanukkah was also early this year, the first night starting at sundown on Nov. 27 (versus last year on Dec. 8 and the year before, Dec. 20)

"It definitely hurts November sales because people start thinking Christmas right after the (Thanksgiving) holiday," Affrunti said.

Fred Ebert, owner of Edwards Luggage at the Stanford Shopping Center, said he started preparing for the "tighter season between Thanksgiving and Christmas" by doing some holiday buying in July and bringing in a holiday gift selection three weeks earlier than usual.

He said the luggage store also experienced a slightly slower November for the first three weeks.

"This last week really makes a big difference," he said.

But Hager said he's of the belief that there's not much stores can do to deal with the impact of a later Thanksgiving.

"You really just have to roll with the holiday punches," he said. "You can't change people's behavior that much just because Thanksgiving is a week later. You just change a little bit of your expectations."

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Palo Alto real estate is too expensive for small retailers to survive in this town. The recent sale of the building housing A9 (Alma and Lytton) at $53M, and other similar properties, clearly demonstrates that the value of downtown property is quite high when put to use as offices. No small retailers could ever generate the sales to pay the high rents that have been driven up by the property developers.

Additionally, the Internet offers access to the whole world for those interested in researching their needs, and wants. Amazon has demonstrated how centralized retailing can deliver merchandise to their customers in one to three days time, at very cost effective prices. Even downscale Walmart is trying to get into the Internet sales/delivery game.

Given the parking problem downtown, it's hard to believe that anyone in their right minds would want to shop there, other than on the weekends.

Things change. Sadly, Palo Alto's downtown is no longer what it might have been to the residents fifty years ago.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by local mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Last year I noticed that some of the toy items we bought were actually priced better at the local independent toy stores, either as the list price or through coupons, than at the big box stores. I learned not to just assume the big box prices are better, and usually the local stores have to work harder to find interesting selections.

I am often finding that some kinds of items, like, oh, paint pens or zots or tank helium, often even SD disks, are easier and cheaper to find locally than online.

Fry's matches internet prices, and now that we have to pay for sales tax via internet, I prefer to just go down to the store and see what's on special or available.

Kepler's has current books that they get signed when the authors come through, and they don't charge any extra for those. (Kepler's is one of those small businesses on the Amex $10 list - that's how I learned about it, a mailing fro Kepler's.) I've gotten books signed by Salmon Rushdie and Bill Bryson as gifts, among others. They put little stickers on the signed ones.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by amex
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 29, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Last year, American Express was donating $25 for Small Business Saturday. This year, the donation is down to $10. Is American Express trying to phase out this program?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by startup
a resident of Southgate
on Nov 30, 2013 at 3:33 pm

you can begin going local by NOT shopping whole foods market.


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