Retail Extinction

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

Local retailers are suffering and Richard Swerdlow fears it means the end of shopping as we knew it.

They're calling it “retail extinction." And shopping does seem to have died out, with empty storefronts everywhere in San Francisco. From Union Street to Castro Street, West Portal to North Beach, shop after shop has closed. In nearly every neighborhood, shuttered storefronts are deserted, empty windows displaying no merchandise, only dust. About one in every five commercial spaces in North Beach alone are now sitting vacant.

It's not because our economy is tanking. A study concluded San Francisco has one of the strongest economies of any metro region. And it isn't because tourists, a factor in the local economy, aren't visiting. Tourism has actually been increasing in San Francisco. So why do our city's streets resemble jack o’lantern smiles, gaps of abandoned stores between a few open shops and restaurants?

Ask any local business owner and they'll talk your ear off about insane rents, suffocating red tape, burdensome taxes, shortage of workers. No place to park, homeless people camping out on streets.

If those are not reasons enough, add big box stores crushing local shops, and ordinances banning chains any business with more than 11 locations. And there's the elephant in the store: online shopping. With stores open 24 hours a day on your phone, there's no reason to ever set foot in an actual shop, except to check out an item before ordering it on that website which sells and delivers, well ... everything.


But clicks can't replace exploring a new neighborhood. The things that make city living delightful discovering that quirky cafe, chatting with your local hardware store clerk are harder and harder to find. What's the point in living in vibrant San Francisco if you order everything from dinner to detergent delivered and never even leave the house?

Local politicians are shopping for solutions, and a tax on empty storefronts has been proposed. But, like the dinosaurs, enchanting city afternoons of window shopping and wandering seem to be gone for good, killed off in a changing world.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School district.