'An uphill battle': How retailers in Menlo Park are preparing to attract holiday shoppers

Zach Stamper and Patricia Rodriguez stroll in the rain down Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park in February. Downtown retailers are seeking to win over locals during the holiday season, even as online spending continues to increase. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.)

Throughout downtown Menlo Park, retailers are bracing for the holiday shopping season. As they face increasing competition from online retailers, local businesses are coming up with ways to attract shoppers.

To encourage people to shop locally on the Peninsula, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors signed a proclamation in support of "Small Business Saturday," one day of the expanding post-Thanksgiving shopping spree when small businesses are increasingly planning promotions and campaigns to foster community-oriented holiday shopping. It is held nationwide the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which this year is Nov. 30.

Small businesses, the supervisors' proclamation states, are important to not just the local economy, but to the U.S. economy more broadly.

The proclamation cites the U.S. Small Business Administration, which reports that 99.7% of all businesses in the country with paid employees are small businesses. Small businesses employ 47.3% of private-sector employees and created nearly 65% of net new jobs in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018.

However, small businesses and small retailers in particular are facing increasing challenges from online retailers. A 2019 Deloitte report predicting holiday shopping trends notes that the gap between how much holiday shoppers spend in stores compared with online is expected to continue to grow this year, with shoppers expected to do 59% of their spending online versus 36% in stores (other retail spending channels such as via catalog or direct mail promotions are counted separately, according to the report).

According to the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, "Every time you pick up a coffee at your local cafe, grab lunch at the mom-and-pop shop, or buy a new bag from a local store, you're making an impact in your community. In fact, for every dollar spent at a small business in the U.S., approximately 67 cents stays in the local community."

How local retailers are preparing

Emily Paul, manager and buyer at Gitane, a women's clothing store at 855 Santa Cruz Ave., said that the business started its Black Friday sale early, with discounts of up to 75% off. The business is encouraging people to shop locally through social media, and has broadened its offerings to include more gift items such as hats, scarves, jewelry, and for the first time this year, a few men's items as well.

In addition, she said, the store prides itself on its one-on-one styling guidance.

"We're hoping people think of us when they think of giving gifts," she said. "We're hoping for an increase (in sales) for sure."

Shopping locally, she added, "helps everyone in the community."

Lynn Macy, co-owner of The Pet Place, said the business has been busy and that the holidays have somewhat sneaked up on them.

While they don't have anything special planned for the major shopping weekend, the store has recently expanded its weekly hours to be open Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and has stocked up on Christmas items for cats, dogs and rabbits. The shop, located at 777 Santa Cruz Ave., will also host adoptions for cats and dogs Dec. 6 through 8.

"We do have a lot of unique items from all over the country," she said. "It'd be nice for the customers to keep in mind we're local, independent, and we grew up in Menlo Park. We're not a chain."

As a small business, she said, the shop is able to offer personalized customer service and serve the community.

"We really appreciate our customers and their support, especially now with all the online pet supplies," she said.

Not all downtown retailers have decided it's worth staying open through the holiday weekend, however.

James Manganaro, owner of Bridgepoint Music at 657 Oak Grove Ave., said he's decided to stay closed. So many people leave for the Thanksgiving holiday and things get so quiet downtown that many would-be customers assume his business is closed anyway and don't bother to visit, he said.

Rather than remain open and have very few customers, he said, he's planning to let his employees enjoy the long weekend.

Over the last five years or so, he added, encouraging people to shop locally instead of online has become an "uphill battle."

The trend on the Peninsula, he said, is for retail to disappear and be replaced by food and drink establishments like coffee shops, restaurants or bars. He pointed to three retail types that currently exist on the Peninsula: niche brands that can become local suburban chains, passion projects, and those he calls a "super big struggle."

He considers his business to be in the last category. "I compete with prices from all over, but the cost of doing business is tied to the region," he said.

Nearby residents may have the means to buy locally, but that doesn't necessarily translate to shopping here and investing in the community, he said.

"I think people like the idea of having retail, but don't always think to follow through and actually give business to those places," he said.

Access a directory of small businesses in downtown Menlo Park compiled by American Express here.


Sign up for Almanac Express to get news updates. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Or show your support for local journalism by subscribing.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


15 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 29, 2019 at 10:38 am

Downtown Menlo Park relies on pedestrians for its business, but why is the street so pedestrian unfriendly? Cars and subsidized car parking clog the streets, blocking the view of retail businesses and endangering pedestrians that are trying to cross the streets around distracted drivers. Menlo Park should ban cars from Santa Cruz Ave, at least during normal business hours. Cars can park in the parking lots off of side streets. Making the street safer and more inviting to pedestrians will bring more customers to local businesses.

2 people like this
Posted by MP Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 29, 2019 at 1:45 pm

Assuming I am not a fashionista, lack pets, and do not require additional furniture, what retail is left? Other than basic necessities (such as grocery / drugstore / coffee), we have:

Kepler's - Not bad, not really a destination (Borderlands is better for fiction, City Lights for non-fiction)
Ace Hardware - Super convenient, but not that many people want a drill for xmas
Pet Stores (Bow Wow Meow, etc) - great for gifts for friends/family with pets but not a regular stop

What else is actually worth visiting for something other than food and drink?

And even if I visit, I concur the cars are a problem - the driving is at "If you don't like my driving, get off the sidewalk" standards at best.

3 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Nov 29, 2019 at 2:01 pm

pearl is a registered user.

Unfortunately for small business owners, online shopping for everything is frequently the most convenient means of shopping for people in this day and age, especially if you work full-time. When I was working 40 hours a week, there's no way I felt like going shopping for groceries at Safeway after an exhausting work day, or spending my time off on weekends shopping. Much easier to order groceries online and have Safeway deliver them right to my front door. Ditto everything else. I do all my shopping online, haven't been to a store or shopping mall for at least 20 years. Among the many great features of online shopping is that you don't have to drive from store to store looking for stuff. Sitting at your computer, you can do a "Search" for the items you want, view the information that displays, compare quality, features and prices, and order right there, online, from the comfort of your home! Can't beat that! It's just a different day and age, given the technology of today.

9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 29, 2019 at 7:07 pm

Shopped at Gitane today. What a wonderful shopping experience. The whole store is on sale and the staff is lovely and helpful.
Shopping locally is a social experience. The other patrons are your neighbors and visiting local stores makes you part of your community.
Step away from your computer and meet your neighbors!

11 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 30, 2019 at 10:17 am

Agree with Resident! I hardly ever buy online. When I stop into our local stores, I'm often "just looking" and I never feel pressured to buy something.

Kepler's is great for books and their boxed card (everyday) collection is excellent. For gifts, the Allied Arts gift shop has unusual and reasonably priced items. The Draeger's upstairs housewares department is also filled with interesting items. If I need something special for cooking, I'm sure to find it there! When buying a gift for a child, I head first to Cheeky Monkey's. There are other nice local stores that I visit for gift items.

For women's clothing, I like Gitane, Angela's, Alys Grace, Kicks (ask for the shoe or purchase cards) and Ela Lingere! I've also found nice purses and jewelry at Afterwards, Discovery Shop and Goodwill! I hardly ever need to visit our local shopping mall as I find most of what I need downtown! For more "mundane" but essential needs, I like Staples, Ace Hardware, Walgreens, Trader Joes, Bevmo and CVS!

Our downtown could be a real destination. Other cities have created exciting and vibrant downtown areas that draw in people to see a movie, eat dinner and shop! Menlo Park's downtown, and the business areas in Belle Haven and the Willows, all need a concerted plan! It's time to update the Downtown specific plan and to develop a plan for the City's other business areas! Concerned parties, please write City Council with your ideas and thoughts. You can reach them all, and the senior management-level staff, by sending an email to

At the Thanksgiving dinner I attended (in San Mateo), I heard rave reviews for the new Hillsdale Mall. Apparently, the place has been completely redone and added a movie theater, new shops, restaurants, etc. It's also apparently quite aesthetically pleasing now. I was told that the place is packed with kids, along with adults, and that the Hillsdale Mall now rivals the Stanford Shopping Center in quality of the overall experience.

A concerted planning effort for our downtown can also include building housing on top of the stores, like they do in Europe and elsewhere. My family spent a year living downtown in Turku, Finland where our apartment building was above the street-level shops. It was this way for the entire Turku downtown, which had a large market square in the middle. Later, the town built a huge underground parking area underneath the market square. Our apartment building had a little playground in the back for the children, but this need could be better met with a central play area for kids. Housing above shops naturally provides a local customer base for the shops!

A proactive planning effort is needed, along with the will of a Council majority to make this happen! Over time, Menlo Park can bring a new vision for our downtown (and other retail areas) to fruition!

7 people like this
Posted by Mark Dinan
a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2019 at 4:09 pm

A great way to boost retail sales in Menlo Park would be to zone Santa Cruz Avenue and other parts of downtown for 5 to 10 story buildings. Single story buildings simply do not provide the built in sales that higher density housing enables.

10 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2019 at 4:59 pm

pearl is a registered user.

Mark Dinan:

"...5 to 10 story buildings" on Santa Cruz Avenue and other parts of downtown?!? You're joking! Forgive me, but if you're serious, I'm going to weep! We're talking Menlo Park here, not New York City!


4 people like this
Posted by Carl
a resident of Atherton: other
on Dec 1, 2019 at 12:57 am

Tried the shop local Menlo thing once, had a hard time getting there due to poor traffic light timing causing self induced gridlock.
Picked up the item I needed, had a cup of coffee returned to my car to find an overtime parking ticket.
Very efficient parking enforcement

2 people like this
Posted by smallbusinessownerCZ
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Dec 1, 2019 at 9:31 pm

smallbusinessownerCZ is a registered user.

Thank you Lynne. These are great suggestions and wonderful ideas to help keep small business and the vibrancy of community alive.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Legends Pizza Co. replaces Palo Alto Pizza Co.
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 2,244 views

Premarital and Couples: 10 Tips for the Holidays
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 2,101 views

What is a "ton" of carbon dioxide anyway?
By Sherry Listgarten | 13 comments | 2,029 views

By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 839 views


Support local families in need

Your contribution to the Holiday Fund will go directly to nonprofits supporting local families and children in need. Last year, Almanac readers and foundations contributed over $150,000.