San Diego small businesses enter the holiday shopping season with optimism... and some trepidation

Craig Maxwell is the owner of Maxwell's House of Book on La Mesa Blvd, in downtown La Mesa.
Craig Maxwell, like many other sole proprietors, has suffered through the pandemic and now rising inflation, as they prepare for the holiday season. Maxwell is the owner of Maxwell’s House of Book on La Mesa Blvd.
(Nancee E. Lewis/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A national survey says 66 percent of consumers say they will spend less this holiday season than they did last year


It’s been a rough few years for small businesses.

After contending with COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and most of 2021, now inflation, a tough economy and fears of a looming recession may make customers reluctant to splurge this holiday shopping season.

Store owners in the San Diego area kicked off Small Business Saturday — the annual initiative that encourages consumers to spend their holiday dollars at mom-and-pop stores — with a mixture of optimism and a dash of economic reality.

“It’s like you don’t know from week to week how you’re going to fare,” said Doug Yeagley, proprietor of two businesses in Mission Hills — Tops Salon hair and nails studio and an adjoining outdoor movie theater called Cinema Under The Stars that screens classic and newly released films.

“People tell me they have to get their hair done but they don’t always have to come see a movie. They can watch on the internet (or streaming services). It’s difficult and all you can do is try to make your place as shiny and healthy-looking as possible and be positive.”

In his 20 years as owner of Maxwell’s House of Books in downtown La Mesa, Craig Maxwell says he can’t remember a slower start to the holiday season.

“Normally we start picking up before Thanksgiving and we see a discernible increase in walk-in and online business and it has slowed down, or at least been very static,” said Maxwell, who estimated his shop’s sales are off 10 percent compared to last year.

A national survey commissioned by Intuit QuickBooks of more than 5,500 adults reported that 66 percent of consumers said they will buy fewer gifts during the 2022 holiday season than last year.

Given high gasoline and food prices, that percentage didn’t surprise Pierre Farhat, who owns Pierre’s Jewelry in downtown La Mesa.

Beatrix and Pierre Farhat are the owners of Pierre Jewelers on La Mesa Blvd.
Beatrix and Pierre Farhat, like many other sole proprietors, have suffered through the pandemic and now rising inflation, as they prepare for the holiday season. The Farhat’s are the owners of Pierre Jewelers on La Mesa Blvd.
(Nancee E. Lewis/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s not easy because we sell luxury items,” he said. “But I think people will get out and everybody will want to buy. They don’t have to buy big gifts of a huge amount of money, but they will buy small things.”

His shop was one of the La Mesa stores ransacked after a large protest against police violence and racial injustice turned riotous on May 30, 2020. Farhat said his store was shut down for more than four months.

“I’ve been doing this for 39 years,” he said. “I’ve survived many hard times.”

Jesse Zmuda, owner of Backbone Floral in Mission Hills, said she’s adjusting her pricing and sending out more emails and coupons to entice customers. Her boutique sells fresh flowers, dried flowers, vintage clothing, cards and art that is all handmade in the U.S.

“Shopping small and local is really important,” Zmuda said “People don’t realize how excited I get when they buy something. It’s a big deal to us.”

Around the corner, Hailey Powell, co-owner of the La Puerta Mexican cantina, said wintertime sales are about 20 percent slower than summer but she hopes an expanded space for private holiday parties will help fill the financial gap.

“We’re super optimistic,” going into the holiday season, she said. “I’m not sure how everyone else does it but we just focus on what we’re doing and not worry about what everyone else is doing.”

The shopping season began with some promising news — Adobe Analytics reported that U.S. shoppers spent almost 3 percent more online this Thanksgiving than they did last year. The study of consumer transactions reported $5.29 billion in sales.

At his La Mesa bookstore with black cat Rorschach snoozing on the counter, Maxwell said a robust holiday shopping season won’t make or break his business. “But it’s certainly the icing on the cake at the end of the year. And if that’s taken away,” he said with a wry laugh, “we’re just left with the dough.”