Interior shot of an REI location
An inside look at the new Santa Cruz REI, a week before its grand opening.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Local Business

Here comes REI: Will Santa Cruz be a good fit for the big outdoor/adventure sports retailer?

The sporting goods co-op is set to officially open up shop in Santa Cruz next Friday, with 51 employees at its Live Oak location. Yet some local business owners are hesitant about the store’s potential: “It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”

Ready or not, Santa Cruz is getting its REI, as the high-end sporting goods store for rugged outdoor adventure types is set to open its doors next week along Highway 1 in Live Oak.

In most of its 14 other Northern California locations, the popular co-operative business that set its Northern California roots in Berkeley in 1975 was met with open arms — adventure-seekers in need of Gore-Tex gloves, rugged hiking boots or down-filled sleeping bags the norm.

But in Santa Cruz, an area with few big-box stores that still prides itself on mom-and-pop businesses, including a strong contingent of beloved local bike shops, its presence comes with some provincial baggage and skepticism.

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“I’m sure REI will have some impact on our store, but I also feel confident in our business that’s been around for nearly 50 years — we’ll figure out how to adapt and change,” said Aaron Jacobs, co-owner of Bicycle Trip in Midtown.

But Jacobs has already felt the sting of the new local playing field: His sales manager became one of the new REI’s 51 employees.

Occupying the former Toys R Us space on Commercial Way, the store will offer Santa Cruzans outdoor gear and apparel not dissimilar from some of the smaller mom-and-pop shops. It will also feature a community room and a specialty bike, ski and snowboard shop for maintenance and repairs with certified mechanics, such as Jacobs’ former sales manager.

Masked man standing center frame in front of an REI store
Store manager John Davis is enthusiastic about the store’s relationship to the Santa Cruz community and other sporting goods stores.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

John Davis, store manager for the new location, has been with the company since 2015 and previously worked in Berkeley. He said he is excited for all that could come from the new location, especially with 49 of the 51 employees — 17 full-timers — being native Santa Cruzans.

“With new store openings, we’re always looking for new opportunities where we can come into the community,” he said, emphasizing REI’s focus on partnership, and how connecting with local retailers could help everyone get outdoors. The Santa Cruz store has already partnered with Santa Cruz Mountain Trail Stewardship , and named local organizations including Ecology Action, the Coastal Watershed Council, and Ventana Wilderness Alliance as partners for its grand opening on Nov. 12-14.

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“We want to provide opportunities to make sure our guests and community are recreating in good spaces,” Davis said. “We want spaces to be equitable, safe and clean, and that’s a very important aspect as to why Santa Cruz is so important to us right now.”

Lookout got a mini tour of the front part of the store Thursday, and it showed that customers will enter the space and immediately be immersed in gear, whether it be for backpacking, hiking, camping, climbing or biking.

“It’s a good balance of what we need for our store to get it open,” Davis said.

Interior shot of an REI, with a store employee in the middle of the frame
A REI store employee surveils the product as the team prepares for the grand opening.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While REI could fill the area’s need for a larger outdoors retailer — a void that grew when longtime local business Outdoor World shuttered its last doors in August — some smaller sporting goods stores are looking at REI as an unquantified experience.

“My initial thoughts are, it’s a cool store, but it’s 50-50 as to whether it will be successful here or not,” said Bicycle Trip’s Jacobs, noting how Sports Authority’s former River Street location closed in under a year. “It will take a little bit to find the appropriate employees, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out [regarding bicycle products].”

While shops like Bicycle Trip have struggled to retain employees, Jacobs believes smaller Santa Cruz shops can still succeed with their focus on the current state of the market and unique offerings. Further, he believes that small businesses like his have “really passionate employees,” which could give them an advantage in the long run.

James Harness, manager at Play It Again Sports, grew tired of working for big-box corporate sporting goods stores 15 years ago, leading him to the smaller Soquel shop. Referencing Play It Again’s 28 years in operation, he said he thinks the local community is more supportive of local businesses over larger stores.

“I don’t think that the REI opening will affect our business much,” he said. “There’s some product carryover, but a lot of what we carry isn’t what they carry.”

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Additionally, he says, most Santa Cruzans want to stick true to “keeping Santa Cruz weird.”

“The times are changing ... but I think the best thing we can do is try to do our part and vote with our dollar,” Harness said. “I’m sure I’ll visit REI, but there’s nothing in [Play It Again] that doesn’t already support my lifestyle.”

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