Santa Monica Lookout
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Retail Sales Looking Up in Downtown Santa Monica  


By Ed Moosbrugger
Special to The Lookout

April 13, 2012 -- For much of 2011, business was “miserable” for prominent bookseller Mark Hennessey at his Downtown Santa Monica store on Wilshire Boulevard. In the past few months, however, sales have picked up for Hennessey & Ingalls Art and Architecture Bookstore.

“It has been a steady increase from November until now,” Hennessey said. “January was better than last year.”

His experience reflects a gradual shift for the better in Downtown retail activity. After some tough years, the sales pace has begun to pick up in recent months. The increased activity is in line with recent national reports of higher retail sales and improved consumer confidence.   

“I'm up from last year,” said Kay Miller, owner of Mudra, a clothing shop on the Third Street Promenade. “2010 was the bottom, 2011 was better... All that I can say is that it is OK” but, she added, nothing like the good times before the recession.

At Shiva Imports on the Promenade, “last year was a struggle” before business went well in the final quarter, said owner Naren Patel. “This year is going neck to neck with last year...a little increase. So far it seems OK, not great.”

Business held steady in 2011 at Readers Fine Jewelers on Wilshire Boulevard, said owner Eddie Guerboian, who called it a “challenging year.”  This year, January was soft and February was pretty good, said the long-time Downtown retailer. He thinks sales will improve.

Ron Baron, owner of Candy Baron on the Promenade, said business is up 10 to 15 percent. His new store on the Promenade is doing better than the older store on Santa Monica Boulevard, which Baron closed last year.

Retailers have had to adjust to the changing retail environment of recent years.

“What's saving us is our Web presence, not bricks and mortar,” Hennessey said. “It's our e-commerce that is pulling us through this.”

At Shiva, Patel is concentrating more on the lower end ($40 to $50 items) of his merchandise range and avoiding overstocking, while at Mudra, Miller is very careful with her stock purchases.

It's not just the fragile state of the economy that has some retailers worried. “The biggest thing that scares me is parking,” said Miller, expressing concern about the demolition of Parking Structure 6 on Second Street for reconstruction and expansion. “I think summer will be very difficult.”         

Although leasing activity is picking up, it's still a challenging environment, according to Robert O. York, a retail consultant for Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. Good things are happening throughout Downtown, but the market has not yet come full circle to a robust situation, York said.
Significantly, there could be some big changes in coming months. Downtown has more than a typical number of leases coming up for renewal soon, creating some uncertainty about who will occupy these spaces, York said.
There already have been some recent changes. Jeweler Frey Wille closed its store on Arizona Avenue and is focusing on its store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills instead.
Corporate-wide developments within some chains also are affecting Downtown. Clothing retailer Esprit closed its store on the Promenade as part of announced plans to shutter all the stores it manages in North America.
Since the reopening of Santa Monica Place, leasing strength seems to have shifted toward the south end of the Promenade. Among new stores that have opened on the 1400 block are Converse, Tilly's and an expansion of Forever 21. Fossil has signed a lease to open on that block, York said. Superdry, an international apparel company, recently opened in the mid-block of the Promenade.
The north block of the Promenade is undergoing a transition, with some significant vacant space, but there is some action there and “the 1200 block is still a very productive block,” York said. Among new tenants coming soon to the block are a Tesla auto showroom, Loteria Grill and Db Shoes.
Still, York said, “there has to be a bigger strategy for the north end.”
There's also action elsewhere Downtown, with Patagonia and Mercado restaurants both taking space on Fourth Street, York said. Tar & Roses restaurant and The Refinery coffee bar have opened on Santa Monica Boulevard, while Seasons 52 restaurant is expected to start construction soon in space at Ocean Avenue and Broadway, York said.


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