The Aug. 30 Town Crier article on the Downtown Vision project, “Downtown visioning scenarios lack vision, critics say,” included a comment from the previous week’s Los Altos City Council meeting: “Because we all know retail is dead. … Let’s stop that fantasy.”
This blanket statement is true in one sense – retail shopping, as it existed 25 years ago, is most certainly dead. Many factors have contributed to the decline, including the rise of the big-box store and online shopping. However, as in any major shift, there is opportunity.
Our town is in the epicenter of Silicon Valley, where the greatest changemakers in the world are making stellar growth happen and leading the way for the rest of the world. Imagine if these thought leaders and innovators threw up their hands in the year 2000 and said, “We just had a bust – the internet is dead!”
Not a chance. As true entrepreneurs know deep down in their souls, ashes are just a pivot point to re-engineer, rethink and add more value than any event in the past could have foretold. Retail is not dead. It is just morphing. Successful small retail stores and successful retail centers in small communities provide products and services that offer more than what can be found online or in a big-box store. Why else would Amazon open brick-and-mortar stores when it has more big data about what shoppers want than any other company on the planet? Some of that data told them that shoppers still crave a physical store experience. Duh, tell us something we didn’t already know.
There are successful examples of vibrant retail in towns all around the Bay Area, including Burlingame Avenue, Fourth Street in Berkeley and Santana Row (well, it is a “street”). What they have in common is a vibrant mix of small local shops, a sprinkling of in-demand chains stores and well-run restaurants serving food and drink that local residents desire. One of the most successful local shopping environments is Stanford Shopping Center. One can only imagine its mix of stores did not happen organically.
For retail inspiration, consider Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos and creator of the Container Park in downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh’s vision to help revitalize a blighted downtown Las Vegas and create a place in the community for his Zappos employees and others, among his other investments in the city, was to create an outdoor retail experience using repurposed shipping containers and turning them into shops and restaurants run by local entrepreneurs. Previously a dilapidated downtown way past its prime, the area now looks like a second life is starting to thrive.
Los Altos does not have these types of problems. The local community seeks to support our retail environment. Good retail is simply a matter of out-of-the-box thinking, or just looking forward rather than looking backward. In the past few years, local developers have begun to chip away at staid ideas by offering retail that is relevant to a variety of people and tastes. This brings in like-minded operators who see a more multifaceted town and potential customers for their shops.
If the objective is to bring more people to downtown to shop and dine, then why not a cycle studio or similar chain that already has a following and brings those folks in at least two times per week on a regular basis? This customer might stroll around after a workout, grab a coffee and even find a dress in a window they just might have to have.
Given all the focus on downtown Los Altos development recently, there should be a way to plan and execute a retail revival that will not be only viable, but also vibrant. Perhaps we can even lead the way as a model for other similar-sized cities. If so, count me in. Retail is not dead in Los Altos – it is just asleep!
Sherry Scott is a Los Altos resident.