San Luis Obispo’s downtown area makes up the well-traveled center of the city and is home to dozens of locally-owned businesses, as well as larger national chains.
Retail centers, such as the downtown area, make up the backbone of San Luis Obispo’s economy, with nearly $1 million in sales tax revenue in the second quarter this year coming from general consumer goods, according to San Luis Obispo’s second quarter 2011 Sales Tax Newsletter. This is nearly double the amount of revenue from the next-closest sales tax contributor, autos and transportation.
The downtown area is not the only place to shop in San Luis Obispo. The city’s surrounding areas also have big retailers, located in strip malls along Madonna and Los Osos Valley roads at the south end of San Luis Obispo.
These “big box” stores add their share to San Luis Obispo’s economy, with some of the city’s top businesses being stores such as Best Buy and Kohl’s.
The coexistence of the downtown shopping and the two large retail areas in San Luis Obispo is possible because the areas are so different, said the economic development manager for the City of San Luis Obispo Claire Clark.
“I don’t think that Los Osos Valley Road has ever been in a competition for the downtown,” Clark said. “The downtown has always had a very strong and unique identity.”
The large-format retail was placed out on Los Osos Valley Road through economic planning, to contrast the more “mom-and-pop” shops focused downtown, Clark said. In fact, according to the city’s sales tax report, the downtown area holds its own against “big box” stores, placing just behind Los Osos Valley Road retailers in income, and just before Madonna Road.
Still, local business owners often said not enough is done to support local business, such as the owner of downtown maternity boutiques Simply Mama and Oh! Baby Kathleen Huggins.
“I think a lot of people in San Luis Obispo want to support local business, but I also think that there’s a lot of people who don’t know the harm that can come from going to the big box stores to save $5, $10,” Huggins said.
Huggins said she competes against bigger, national maternity stores by offering unique customer service that can’t be found elsewhere, such as only hiring mothers who have experience in giving birth and breastfeeding.
The personal appeal of locally-owned shops draws consumers from outside the county to downtown as well, such as Long Beach resident Forrest Story. Story visits San Luis Obispo several times each year on business, but always makes a point to stop by downtown and shop for Christmas gifts.
For Story, the shops in San Luis Obispo’s downtown hold a unique appeal that is lacking in other commercial centers.
“I love downtown here because it’s not malls,” Story said.
Co-owner of downtown women’s apparel boutique Harlow Virginia Moreno said finding a niche appeal is key to succeeding in competition with larger businesses. Moreno and her business partner try to do this at Harlow by catering their clothing to classy women in their 40s and 50s, an age and style gap that Moreno said was missing in local retail.
Moreno also tries to help local businesses like her own by choosing them over large-format retail.
“Obviously, since I’m a local, I try to keep my business local,” Moreno said. “When I shop, I’m very aware of big box versus local.”
Other people choose where to shop based on what they are looking for, business administration junior Kaileigh Rasmussen said. If Rasmussen needs something quickly and inexpensive, she is likely to go to the Madonna Road shopping centers.
“If I’m going shopping for a staple item, I’ll go downtown,” Rasmussen said. “If I’m going shopping for an exchange for my sorority, I’ll go to Forever 21.”
Long-time local resident Sattie Blanton, however, said she has preferred shopping downtown since she was a student at Cal Poly in the 1960s.
Since then, Blanton has seen downtown grow, with new shops and more neighborhoods added to the area. Blanton said she loves local stores and loves bringing her family shopping downtown.
“When I have company for Mother’s Day and I bring them here, they’re just so thrilled because all they have are malls,” Blanton said.
Despite the introduction of larger chain stores in San Luis Obispo, people such as Blanton, Moreno and Story, who prefer shopping downtown, prove that both shipping outlets are able to coexist economically.