Downtown Palo Alto will launch the holiday shopping season on Saturday, Nov. 29, with the annual holiday tree lighting at Lytton Plaza, music, carolers, frolicking elves, make-and-take ornaments, face painting and food and drinks.
But while the event is intended to encourage visitors to "shop local," merchants are not counting on Small Business Saturday to substantially boost their sales. Unlike Black Friday, when major retailers offer big discounts and holiday frenzy, mom-and-pop retailers say there's no way that Saturday can compete with the Black Friday and Cyber Monday bonanzas.
Instead this holiday, merchants plan to attract customers by offering what they say they provide year-round: quality, interesting products that make great gifts and top-notch service.
Retail businesses traditionally do the majority of their annual sales during the holiday season.
Last year the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association focused its efforts on promoting Small Business Saturday, an event started by American Express in 2010 to encourage shoppers to patronize small stores by offering cardholders a credit when they spend at participating retailers. The association provided businesses with door mats, stickers, shopping bags and other promotional materials. But Russ Cohen, the group's executive director, said the work of delivering hundreds of magnets, pens, mats and bags was overwhelming, and the revenues didn't markedly increase.
Mom-and-pop store owners interviewed this week agreed. The mediocre results were partially due to shoppers' mindsets, they told the Weekly: Customers flock to the mall or online for the big discounts; they don't look to smaller retailers for cheap goods.
Workers at some small chain stores, of which there are many in downtown Palo Alto, said they have planned limited sales this weekend. Chico's clothing store will offer special, tiered discounts and a gift with a purchase, and they plan to stay open one hour earlier and one hour later, said Alaina Munoz, assistant manager. Footwear Etc. has an ongoing boot sale through Sunday and plans to offer a discount for American Express card users, said assistant manager Rick Meza. The store usually has refreshments and offers a gift with purchases.
David's Tea will begin offering incentives on Black Friday and continue through the weekend, giving away a tea mug and canvas totes with purchases over a certain dollar amount, said assistant manager Alexis Lucio. Most of the discounts are determined by corporate headquarters, managers said.
Eschewing the discount strategy, mom-and-pop store owners said they are focusing their efforts on cultivating loyal followers.
"It's more than selling stuff. In a way, we're in the lifestyle business. These are things that are for the heart. The right gift at the right time can mean so much to people," Letter Perfect owner Gwen Gasquet said. Building customer loyalty means "consistently trying to delight your customers with exceptional service and products."
Faith Bell of family-owned Bell's Books on Emerson Street, said having something special is highly valued by her customers. Bell's has many rare books, first editions and signed copies this year, for example, she said. Buying books from her store has become a tradition for many customers.
"People come in and say, 'It wouldn't be Christmas without books from Bell's under the tree,' and I'm eternally grateful," she said.
At Hemingway Tobacconist and Cigars, co-owner Billy Kader said customers come for the high-end products: cigars, humidors, pipes and knives. He doesn't have to offer discounts; his clientele know what they are getting, and they come for the high quality, he said.
Gasquet, of Letter Perfect, said it's nice to create the mindset of Small Business Saturday, but "we just have to be exceptional all of the time. What has kept us here above all else is a really strong and loyal customer base who believe in what we do and in our value to the community. They make a conscious effort to support the business," she said.
Alice Deutscher of Shady Lane, an artisan gift store, said the 40-year-old business uses social media such as Facebook to contact patrons and grow its customer base. The store will offer a few specials and give out free hearts on Saturday, but it won't run big sales.
"We don't want to compete with that kind of craziness," she said.
What the little guys need most of all is recognition year-round. Shopping local is "a mind set, not just a day," Deutscher said.
Shady Lane also faces a move when the building it occupies is torn down. Deutscher is looking at options, but she isn't ready to discuss what might come next. Other mom-and-pop-store owners say they are also concerned for their futures.
The boom in construction and exorbitant rents have caused their fellow store owners to fold, one by one, over at least the past decade. The march to oblivion is only escalating as downtown and California Avenue undergo conversions to office space, they said.
More than anything, they said they need the city to recognize what's happening to them, and they are hopeful that a new City Council in January might begin to institute some relief. Some say a "right to return" after a building is renovated would help.
Norzin Lama, owner of Norzin Collections boutique on University Avenue, on Monday looked toward the corner of Cowper Avenue where a string of small businesses, including Plan Toys and the House of Bagels, are being evicted to make way for a new, multi-story office building with ground-floor retail. Lama fears what construction on the corner will do to her business of 20 years.
"Parking is already not the best. Customers say, 'Norzin, I love to come to you, but I got two tickets already,' so I'm really worried," she said.
If you go
What: Fourth Annual Holiday Tree Lighting. Live bands, bell ringers and carols; Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Stanford Federal Credit Union lighting the tree.
When: Nov. 29, between 4 and 7 p.m. Event will be held rain or shine.
Where: Lytton Plaza on the corner of University Avenue and Emerson Street, Palo Alto
Who: Sponsored by the Palo Alto Downtown Business and Professional Association, Palo Alto Weekly, Whole Foods, the City of Palo Alto, Stanford Federal Credit Union, Cafe Venetia and other local small businesses.