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Originally published April 12, 2014 at 8:01 PM | Page modified April 13, 2014 at 10:40 AM

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Specialty shops losing ground downtown, retailer says

Butch Blum says eateries and banks are proliferating in donwtown Seattle while specialty retail shrinks. Also, Amazon’s tech-support people inspire love — the marrying kind — according to Jeff Bezos.


By Seattle Times business staff

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I used to like to go downtown to shop for clothing and home furnishings. Would also go to Pike Place Market, have some... MORE

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Downtown Seattle has scored some major retail coups lately — the opening of the area’s first Zara store, for example, and Arc’teryx’s first U.S. store. There’s also plenty of new restaurants around, and Amazon’s thousands of employees have added a new vitality.

But according to one prominent store owner, there’s an underlying frailty in the ecosystem — not enough specialty retailers to keep wanderers busy and entertained.

“It’s all about food and beverage and financial institutions,” said Butch Blum, owner of the eponymous designer-clothing store on Sixth Avenue, at a breakfast round table organized by the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) and Gallatin Public Affairs.

The DSA’s figures seem to confirm Blum’s impressions. In 2013, there were 1,040 retail stores downtown, a 12 percent drop from 2009. By contrast, 2,615 service providers such as banks, restaurants and beauty salons occupy more of downtown’s retail space than in 2009, when they numbered 2,440.

Now there are 132 financial institutions, up from 124 in 2009. The number of banks and credit unions has actually decreased by one — to 83 from 84 in 2009. But all other financial services — which include payday loan services and such — has increased by more than a fifth to 49.

The reasons for retail’s dwindling downtown are many. Competition from online providers — including that same Amazon, which employs the thousands of workers who eat at the new restaurants — is a factor that’s been eating away the profit margins of most brick-and-mortar stores.

That makes it harder to pay the high rents downtown. Also many retailers find it easier to deal with landlords specializing in retail, in environments such as University Village or Bellevue Square, where there’s free parking, to boot.

In the end, downtown Seattle has plenty of attractive qualities — water views, trendy urban grit and high-end eateries that serve as a destination to draw in out-of-area customers. There are also efforts by the Downtown Seattle Association to help visitors find affordable parking.

One factor could be the building owners, who may have to choose between leasing to a safe, deep-pocketed bank and a more interesting — but more speculative — venture.

“It’s a huge risk for landlords to roll the dice on some new specialty store,” Blum said.

Ángel González: agonzalez@seattletimes.com

Love kindled by Kindle tech support?

Customer-support reps often get invective from flustered consumers, as well as occasional praise from those whose intractable problems they’ve solved.

But marriage proposals?

Turns out the customers for Mayday, Amazon’s on-demand tech-support service, who appear in a postage-stamp-sized video window on Kindle Fire HDX devices, have asked for the digital hand of their tech-support helper more than once.

Thirty-five times, in fact, according to the most recent shareholders letter penned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos.

The letter, which Bezos writes annually to investors trumpeting the online retail giant’s successes from the previous 12 months, highlights plenty of other corporate initiatives. But toward the end of this year’s 4,362-word letter, sent Thursday, Bezos listed a few of the more peculiar Mayday requests.

Turns out that 475 customers have asked to talk with Amy, who appears as the friendly tech-support staffer in Amazon’s Mayday commercials. (Not going to happen. Amy is the actress Amy Paffrath, not an Amazon employee.)

Some 109 customers have contacted tech support through Mayday to get help ordering pizzas. There have been 44 pleas by customers to get Mayday staff to sing Happy Birthday. And, Bezos noted, three customers have requested a bedtime story.

Jay Green: jgreene@seattletimes.com



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