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."