Thursday, July 19 , 2018, 12:33 am | Fair 64º



REI Accepting Job Applications as Construction Rolls On for Santa Barbara Store

With the State Street location set to open in the fall, local businesses are hoping the national retailer will be an anchor for the recreation market

National outdoor recreation retailer REI has been gearing up for the opening of its new Santa Barbara store, and on Monday began accepting applications for about 50 positions. But some disagree about whether the arrival will benefit local businesses.

The Seattle-based store will open a 24,500-square-foot location at 314 State St. in the fall, although a specific date hasn’t been announced. Click here for job information.

REI will offer products for camping, climbing, cycling, fitness, hiking, paddling, snow sports and travel, in addition to a bike shop for assemblies and repairs, a gear rental department, and community space where nonprofits and outdoor organizations can hold classes and events.

“Our goal is to work together with other outdoor retailers to increase participation in outdoor recreation, and ultimately grow the market,” REI spokeswoman Beth Hawley said.

Ken Duddridge, owner of Mountain Air Sports at 14 State St., said REI will give outdoor enthusiasts more options and draw a different type of customer to the area — in fact, he said, it could help smaller businesses such as his.

“Originally, I was excited to hear REI was coming. I would like to be right next to them because they do have drawing power,” said Duddridge, who started Mountain Air Sports more than 30 years ago. “If REI doesn’t carry certain products that we have, they will send customers to us and we will send some to them, and we’ll stabilize the big-box market.”

REI isn’t a cheap competitor that will necessarily undercut sales at other businesses. Radius Group Commercial Real Estate General Manager Brian Johnson said that although it does have discounts, REI offers many high-end products that will bring more life into the 300 and 400 blocks of State Street.

But Gregg Hirsch, general manager of Velo Pro Cyclery and Trailhead, disagreed. He said REI will be a destination location.

“I think that’s not even possible; there’s already tons of traffic on State Street,” Hirsch said. “I think it’s going to be a destination location. People will drive their car there, get what they need and go home.” 

Trailhead has been phasing out certain outdoor products and brands because of online competition and Velo Pro’s expanding business. Hirsch said it isn’t trying to compete with REI.

“There will be a direct impact locally here. Mountain Air Sports is so close, and we have Santa Barbara Outfitters up a few blocks,” he said. “I’m not saying these guys are shaking in their boots, but they know there will be competitive issues going on. Big boxes work more with volume and profit margin, and smaller businesses will have their work cut out for them, especially on State and as higher rent has evolved over the years.”

But Duddridge said that as long as Santa Barbara appreciates a personalized approach to customer service, small businesses will do fine.

“Big-box retailers hire people who are less knowledgeable so people are less real and more like robots,” Hirsch said. “With the small mom-and-pops they have that real human touch and ability to do whatever is necessary to maintain good customer relationships, which is what you are missing with a place that could open up in Anytown, USA.”

Duddridge said every person Mountain Air Sports hires has experience in various fields, whether it’s hiking, snowboarding, backpacking or skiing. He said REI’s arrival is likely to impact business temporarily, but within two years things will turn back to normal.

“Small businesses make you feel like you want to be there. It’s harder for (bigger stores) to get enough true users in there that know the product and know what (customers) need to use because they need 40-some-odd employees, we only need 10,” Duddridge said, adding that he isn’t sure whether Santa Barbara has the population base to support REI.

Johnson agreed that “(small businesses) distinguish themselves on customer service.”

Hirsch believes Santa Barbara has lost many of the smaller, sole-proprietor businesses because landlords haven’t been willing to compromise.

“It’s disturbing just for the fact that these landlords nowadays don’t take small businesses into consideration as a place that had loyalty to them in running their business there for x-amount of years,” he said. “When a lease expires or there’s a renewal, they are trying to be more like this is fair market value — if you don’t like it, then so long.”

With vacancy trends, Santa Barbara’s office, industrial and retail sectors have increased. The city’s retail vacancy rate rose slightly to 2 percent, according to Radius Group’s second-quarter report. There were only 37 South Santa Barbara County commercial sale transactions in the second quarter, well below the average 64 transactions and one of the lowest numbers in the past 13 years.

But REI could help shore up those vacancy rates.

“I don’t think REI will put anyone out of business, but it will put more people and hopefully more retailers in those blocks,” Johnson said.

REI began improving partition walls, electrical wiring, plumbing, wall and floor finishes and other interior work on Monday. Construction on the exterior of the store will continue for another three weeks.

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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