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Retail Registers Ringing Downtown

By Ed Moosbrugger

September 1 -- Downtown retailers are posting solid sales gains this summer, but for some the increases aren’t quite as much as they hoped for.

Overall, though, it’s been a strong summer as retailers see more tourists in Santa Monica.

“Business is very good,” said Jeff King of King Seafood, which owns i. Cugini and Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica. “Both restaurants are surpassing last year.”

Out-of-town visitors are one of the keys. “The tourist season has begun,” King said in August. “Santa Monica is wall-to-wall people.”

Bebe, the women’s apparel store on the Third Street Promenade, is proof of that. “Business has been phenomenal for us,” said store manager Luis Briseno. “We’re definitely on fire.”

The store is posting strong double-digit sales increases this summer and ranks in the top 10 among 250 Bebe stores. It’s consistently in the top 15, Briseno said.

Tourists are the key, accounting for about 70 percent of the foot traffic on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Briseno said.

Mark Hennessey, owner of the Hennessey & Ingalls art and architecture bookstore on Wilshire Boulevard, said things have been very busy.

“I think the tourists are back,” he said. “It’s busy at night. The restaurants are filled up.”

Hennessey reported lots of pedestrian activity on Wilshire Boulevard, particularly between noon and 6 p.m., with some of the people walking around in Downtown from nearby hotels.

“We’re selling the usual tourist things – maps, postcards,” Hennessey reported.

At the Guess clothing store on the Third Street Promenade, business is up from last summer.

“It’s definitely consistently busy,” said store general manager Sarah Benny. “We’re doing really well.” Tourists provide a big part of the store’s business, and Guess has seen many visitors from Europe this year.

The Quicksilver Board Riders Club store on the Promenade is benefiting from name recognition by international tourists.

Australia and Europe are big markets for Quicksilver brand merchandise, so the Santa Monica store captures the attention of tourists from those areas, said store manager Jim Gill.

Europe and Australia are strong tourist markets for Santa Monica.

“We’ve been doing pretty well,” Gill reported. “It seems like late afternoon and evening do really well for us. Mornings are really slow.”

Business at the store, which opened a little over a year ago, was disrupted a bit in June and part of July by construction work, but aside from that, activity was trending pretty well, Gill said.

Naren Patel, owner of Shiva Imports on the Promenade, reported improved sales but added, “I expected a lot more this summer.”

He is seeing people from all over the country and world.

One big surprise has been the large number of customers from Canada, particularly Toronto, Patel reported. Customers are buying merchandise across the board.

Shops that sell clothing are benefiting from the strong representation of apparel stores on the Promenade, Patel said.

“They all help each other,” he said, noting that customers like to mix and match apparel items.

Patel, however, is concerned there’s a shortage of easily accessible public bathrooms and thinks that hurts business.

Eddie Guerboian, owner of Readers Fine Jewelers on Wilshire Boulevard, said the retail scene is challenging, but his store was very busy in the last month.

Guerboian, who is the Chamber of Commerce’s new chair, noted fewer tourists at the store this summer, but said that is not a big part of Readers’ business. The tourists they see are mostly from the United States, often people attending conventions at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel.

The challenging retail environment is reflected in national reports.

Retail chains reported strong sales gains in June, but had smaller increases than expected in July. Some analysts think that aggressive price promotions by auto companies may have drawn so much business that it hurt other types of retailers.

The mixed picture is reflected in national sales figures for chains with outlets on the Promenade. Bebe and Guess were among those showing the best gains in June and July, while Gap (which owns Banana Republic, Gap and Old Navy) was a laggard.

In Downtown Santa Monica, the picture is bright overall.

Guerboian pretty much summed it up: “I can’t complain.”

SANTA MONICA HOTELS entered the summer season with expectations of strong performances. If a report on June hotel activity is any indication, they are having much more success in boosting room rates than in increasing occupancy.

The average room rate in June jumped 12.3 percent from a year earlier to $223.70, while the hotel occupancy rate dipped 2.9 percent to 77.9 percent, according to a report by PKF Consulting.

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