Name a Menlo Park business, and you can probably come up with a corresponding "big-box" store or online vendor that offers a similar, and often cheaper, product with just a quick click of the mouse, or a short drive away.
Now local businesses are fighting back, as a cluster of storeowners in Menlo Park and nearby towns have joined forces to create Hometown Peninsula, a nonprofit focused on figuring out how independent businesses can stay relevant in a world where franchises keep growing and online vendors keep getting stronger.
Leading the effort is Clark Kepler, owner of Kepler's Books and Magazines, and someone who knows a thing or two about trying to survive in a tough business climate.
In 2005, Mr. Kepler unexpectedly closed his bookstore, citing the economic hardships following the dot-com crash and fierce competition from franchise and online booksellers.
As a result of a flood of community support, the local landmark reopened later that year, but Mr. Kepler said it's still tough for Kepler's and other local businesses to compete against "big-box" retailers.
"After we reopened, customers kept coming up to me to say 'I didn't realize shopping for books online could put you out of business,'" Mr. Kepler said. "That awareness, and having people recognize the impact they make on the community through their shopping choices, is what [Hometown Peninsula] is all about."
With the help of the city's Downtown Merchants' Association (a Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce committee), Mr. Kepler and other business owners launched Hometown Peninsula last spring, and the nonprofit is now 43 members strong.
Local businesses such as Village Stationer, Beltramo's Wines and Spirits, and Draeger's have already signed on, and Mr. Kepler said he hopes that number will rise to 80 businesses by the end of the year. The Almanac is also a member.
"We're still trying to figure out how this will work, but a lot of small businesses are really looking for this to be successful," he said.
What's already figured out is Hometown Peninsula's main objective — trying to get residents to spend more of their shopping dollars at local, independent businesses.
"We're not trying to tell people to never shop online, or at the big stores ever again," said Steven Eichler, who owns Eichler Designs, a kitchen and bath showroom on Santa Cruz Avenue.
Although Mr. Eichler, who is on Hometown Peninsula's board of directors, did jokingly shudder at the words "Home Depot," he said that the nonprofit isn't trying to take down the big-box stores; it's just trying to help local shops and stores get some of their business back.
"If we can just shift a small percentage of spending back locally, we'll be in good shape," he said. "The issue here is that buying locally really does support our whole community — that's what needs to resonate loud and clear."
Spreading the word
To increase awareness, Hometown Peninsula is launching an advertising campaign to encourage residents to shop at local businesses during the holiday season, and the group is venturing outside Menlo Park city limits to get more members on board.
Steve Rasmussen, a Menlo Park resident who owns the Milk Pail Market in Mountain View, said getting businesses all over the Peninsula to join the group is a good thing.
"It's lonely out there when you own a small business," said Mr. Rasmussen, who is also on the board of directors. "It's hard for small businesses to be visible, compared to 30, 40, 50 years ago when there were mostly small businesses out there. ... With groups like this, you can share ideas, and talk to like-minded people to make your business better."
"Our objective is to be open to all qualified members up and down the Peninsula and make this group as strong as possible," Mr. Kepler said.
He noted that locally owned franchises are not eligible for membership, because the decision-making for those businesses often happens at the corporate headquarters level, rather than at the local level.
"Independent businesses often buy supplies locally, and invest time and money back into the community, and chain stores don't always do that," Mr. Kepler said.
For more information about Hometown Peninsula, go to HometownPeninsula.org.
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