Petaluma launches virtual shopping mall of downtown businesses

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Petaluma has launched a virtual shopping mall of its downtown businesses, trying to support the city’s brick-and-mortar business devastated by coronavirus shelter-in- place restrictions.

It’s another example of lockdown ingenuity, of necessity becoming the mother of invention, to help businesses survive the devastating economic effects of the global pandemic.

The web-based forum called is funded by the city’s economic development department in collaboration with the Petaluma Downtown Association, the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce and local merchants.

It’s an e-commerce site that provides shopping access to — and web sales opportunities for — dozens of local restaurants, taprooms, art galleries and boutiques, all in one stop.

The site, which went live on Friday, gives shoppers the ability to search by category (restaurants, entertainment, shopping) or by street, which allows a kind of window-shopping experience similar to strolling through Petaluma’s main shopping district.

It was the brainchild of boutique operator Jess Brown of, who shortly into quarantine realized she was seeing social media posts of her favorite shops, but only because she was already following them.

“People were coming up with creative solutions, curbside pickup or drop-off on your doorstep, but you wouldn’t know that unless you were already following them in Instagram or Facebook,” she said. “I could get the word out by sharing the post, but that would only go to people who follow me.

“It dawned on me that there wasn’t a network in place for the community to find out in one place what everyone was doing.”

Ingrid Alverde, the city’s economic development manager, brought in leaders of the Chamber of Commerce and the downtown association. The Petaluma Downtown Association already had the website domain name, the city provided the website development and the chamber helped promote the site to its members.

The city design team considered how shopping online is different than in person, Alverde said.

“You walk along and see things you didn’t know you were interested in because you walked by.

It’s not the same, obviously, but it definitely sets the stage for a shopping experience,” she said. “We try to replicate the shopping experience as much as one can in a virtual platform.”

Some merchants already had their own websites or some were using social media, but others had very little online presence. The city helped merchants with a webinar on how they can leverage sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to bring customers in.

When a viewer on the ShopPetaluma site clicks on a business, the page shows the address, hours, phone number, email, website and direct links to the merchants’ social media accounts, as well as any special coronavirus service offerings.

At the bottom of the page, it suggests other nearby businesses — as if a shopper were walking to the next storefront — or similar products to browse.

The downtown has taken a hit this year with businesses shuttered to slow the spread of the virus, but also the cancellation or postponement of major downtown events including the Butter & Egg Days parade, a large antique fair and an art and garden festival.

This website will help merchants who weren’t marketing themselves on social media, said Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association Executive Director.

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“People are really excited about having another avenue,” she said. “The most important thing is how to utilize it, and that’s where we come in as a chamber and a downtown association.”

Chamber chief executive officer Onita Pellegrini said what makes Petaluma so charming and so attractive to shoppers is the local stores, run by local people, who sell unique items. Items for sale in downtown Petaluma are not necessarily things someone can buy on Amazon.

Though many Sonoma County residents confined to their homes have resorted to having items delivered, she hopes will help remind shoppers their local businesses need them.

“People have run to the online shopping, but we want to make people realize that our merchants are still going to be there after this is over,” she said. “It’s what keeps our town’s character and our community, and keeps our nonprofits viable, and the whole ambiance of Petaluma that we want to make sure stays preserved.”

The site highlights only downtown merchants so far, but will expand to other shopping areas of town, Alverde said. After the shelter-at-home era is over, it may be fine-tuned again.

“Moving forward, it will help brand Petaluma as a destination for not only online shopping, but actual shopping, too,” she said. “It might be a while before people want to go shopping, go browsing in stores. People will be hesitant and there are still those in the vulnerable populations that will be careful.

“The idea is to come out of this stronger than we started. It’s something to look forward to.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter.

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