But a sampling of merchants in four Palo Alto shopping areas agreed it's been a good year and said they hope for a strong holiday season.
"There's no way to know specifically what will fly off the shelves," said Don Lundell, co-owner of the California Avenue running and coffee shop Zombie Runner, on Tuesday.
"You could feel the holiday shopping increase about a week ago, and it will probably continue through this week and explode on Friday."
Lundell and his partner, Gillian Robinson — former tech workers who love distance running — opened their shop in 2008 after having first launched a successful online business in running-related apparel and products in 2003.
They've been working late nights, attending to inventory and pricing both online and in the shop.
"CyberMonday is now a real thing, sort of the online equivalent of Black Friday," Lundell said. "You need to take full advantage of it on the one hand and also make sure everything is working properly from a technical standpoint and inventory management standpoint — you don't want to sell what you don't have."
Though their retail opening coincided with the 2008 recession, the store, popular with tech workers, has been successful, said Lundell, who hopes to open in another city this coming year.
"If you're going to be somewhere during the recession, this is the place to be, and now we've had such a resurgence in technology," he said.
But even when the tech-fueled local economy is stronger than the national outlook, local sales "tend to track more with the national economy than the local economy," observed Eric Hager, general manager at Palo Alto Sport Shop & Toy World.
"It seems counterintuitive; it might have to do with psychology," said Hager, who's been with the toy store 26 years. "If people are doing well here but the rest of the country is suffering, it may be psychologically negative. So when the national economy is perceived to be strong, we have a good Christmas."
This year, "the economy is giving mixed signals, and that's the biggest obstacle to predicting Christmas for us.
"If you'd asked me earlier in the year I'd have said it's going to be very good, but in the last two months everything's been put on hold," Hager said. "It could have been the election or the World Series that slowed things down, so we really won't know until we get into December."
For the first time in its history, Palo Alto Sport Shop & Toy World plans to open its doors at 6 a.m. on Black Friday for a "Doorbusters Sale."
In-demand items this year are Magna Tiles, Strider bikes, Ninjago Legos and Lego Friends, he said.
At Town & Country Village, Douce France café owner Victor Marku had upper shelves brimming with brightly wrapped Panettone. The traditional Italian Christmas bread was a hallmark of Marku's childhood in Albania — thanks to his Italian grandmother — and he introduced it to Douce France when he bought the business in 2000.
"Now, I can't have enough of it," he said.
In December he'll begin his annual stocking of Buche de Noel, the rolled French cake shaped and decorated like a yule log.
December is his busiest month, Marku said.
"There are a lot more parties and events, and we do well on pastries, desserts and cakes.
"I think it's going to be a little better than last year. The shopping center right now is really at its boom — it's crowded, almost all the stores are full and more people stop in the afternoon for dessert, a coffee or tea."
One of downtown's oldest retailers, the 77-year-old Bell's Books, had its holiday window display ready before Thanksgiving.
It's going to be an "Oz" year, said Faith Bell, daughter of Herbert Bell, who launched the business in 1935 to supply textbooks to Stanford University students.
Bell recently acquired two "enormous Oz collections," including signed limited editions, figurines from the Wizard of Oz, an Oz teapot — even Oz-themed business books — that will be on sale at prices from $4 to $850.
Bell also has boosted her supply of new books since the closure last year of Border's.
"There's nobody else downtown," she said. "People thought I'd be happy about that, but I'm not. A larger book community is a more vibrant book community.
"A lot of people don't realize we carry new books," Bell said. "We have 280,000 used and rare books but also tens of thousands of new books.
"A lot of people look to bookstores now to be social centers as well as providing them with books."
On California Avenue, Leaf & Petal women's dress shop manager Judy Ohki said the staff since October has been helping customers achieve "pulled-together outfits" for holiday parties.
"It's been a great year, and I have no reason to expect it not to continue through the holidays," Ohki said.
Popular this year are lace, crochet and mixed metals — silver and gold together in jewelry and on handbags.
For last-minute shopping by spouses and significant others, the shop relies on its customer logs that show the women's sizes and preferences.
"Men come in, and we can look up and see sizes, things (their spouses) tend to buy — taste, color," Ohki said. "We can almost function as a personal shopper on the fly for the guy who comes in for their partner — especially for those last-minute men.
"Every year on Dec. 24 there's only men in the store. That's 'guy day' — we should just make it official," she said.
At Stanford Shopping Center, Hair International owner Pam Decharo said December is "a big color time because nobody wants to show their roots at holiday parties."
December comes behind June — graduation season — as the salon's biggest month, Decharo said.
"We have a customer that's very practical," she said. "They may be very wealthy, but they're very down to earth, in my opinion. They want value.
"This customer is very simply done. They don't want to look like a little doll at the holiday party — they want to look like themselves, only better."
Decharo, who's owned the salon since 1990, logged her biggest year before the 2008 recession, which, she believes, changed people's approaches to spending.
"In 2008 the stock market crashed, and everyone in this country changed the way they felt about money and what's valuable to them," she said. "When they have extra, maybe they're giving more away, giving to charities more.
"They came to realize it isn't money that's important, it's your family and your values. So, in a way, I thought that was a good thing."