Lawrence has nearly $2B in retail sales in 2023, but city’s growth since pandemic has been slower than average

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

Downtown Lawrence, looking north, is pictured in this aerial photo from September 2023.

Even if we are browsing through the clearance items at the Goodwill store, all of us Lawrence shoppers can feel like we are almost part of an exclusive club — the $2 billion club.

Lawrence fell just short of posting $2 billion in total retail sales in 2023, which would have made it just one of six communities in the state to do so.

Now that the Kansas Department of Revenue has released its final sales tax figures for the year, we can look at what cities in the state are the biggest when it comes to serving and attracting shoppers.

Lawrence is definitely one of the biggest, but the new numbers suggest its star may not be the brightest among the big retail markets in Kansas. The numbers show Lawrence’s retail sales have bounced back from the pandemic more slowly than most major markets, and Lawrence continues to punch below its weight when it comes to per capita retail sales.

The city of Lawrence relies on sales tax collections more than any other tax to fund its budget, so the health of retail sales in Lawrence will determine a lot about the projects the city of Lawrence can and can not do in the future, and how much the city may have to raise its property tax rates.

With that in mind, put on your wetsuit ($3 on the clearance rack and only one-and-a-half sizes too small) to do a deep dive into some year-end retail numbers.

First, let’s look at the largest retail markets in the state, based on total sales. All the numbers are figured by using year-end sales tax collections and the sales tax rate in each community to calculate a total amount of taxable retail sales that occurred in each community. As a reminder, retail sales include everything from groceries to clothing to less thought of items like the amount of electricity and natural gas you buy from your utilities each month. They don’t include internet purchases or gasoline purchases, because both of those products are charged a different type of tax that doesn’t show up as a sales tax in the state’s accounting.

• Overland Park: $4.91 billion

• Olathe: $3.26 billion

• Topeka: $3.2 billion

• Kansas City, Kan.: $2.92 billion

• Lawrence: $1.95 billion

• Lenexa: $1.79 billion

• Hutchinson: $1.37 billion

• Salina: $1.32 billion

• Manhattan: $1.29 billion

• Shawnee: $1.23 billion

• Merriam: $1.03 billion

• Garden City: $858.1 million

• Leawood: $833.5 million

• Hays: $677.7 million

• Derby: $621 million

• Dodge City: $556.7 million

• Emporia: $545.7 million

• Leavenworth: $530.6 million

It is worth noting that Wichita definitely should be on this list. It is certainly part of the $2 billion club, and probably has more retail sales than No. 1 ranked Overland Park. But it is not on the list because I figured these numbers using local sales tax collections, and Wichita does not charge a local sales tax. It charges a state sales tax and a county sales tax, but without a citywide sales tax, I wasn’t able to quickly figure Wichita’s total retail sales.

As for Lawrence’s place on the list, it is about what you would expect in one regard. Douglas County is the fifth most populous county in Kansas, and Lawrence is ranked fifth on the list (or sixth, when Wichita is counted.)

Next, let’s look at how retail sales have been growing since the pandemic. Except for one community, every one of the communities on the list above (I chose those because they are all the communities with $500 million or more in sales) have fully recovered lost sales from the pandemic.

The good news is the one community that hasn’t recovered its sales is not Lawrence. The bad news is Lawrence has recovered at a below-average rate. Here’s a look at how much retail sales have grown since 2019, which was the year before the pandemic began.

• Lenexa: up 37.1%

• Merriam: up 33.6%

• Kansas City: up 23.3%

• Hays: up 22.8%

• Salina: up 22.6%

• Emporia: up 22.2%

• Hutchinson: up 22%

• Olathe: up 21.9%

• Derby: up 21.8%

• Garden City: 21.2%

• Topeka: up 21%

• Overland Park: up 19.1%

• Lawrence: up 17.2%

• Manhattan: up 14.1%

• Leawood: up 12.1%

• Dodge City: up 11.3%

• Leavenworth: up 10.5%

• Shawnee: down 8.1%

The average growth rate for the list above was 19.2%, so Lawrence was about two percentage points below the average.

Lastly, let’s look at per capita retail spending. This simply is a calculation that shows the total amount of retail spending divided by a city’s total population, as estimated by the Census Bureau. The number really isn’t a representation of how much every man, woman and child in Lawrence spent on retail goods. Rather, the number is useful in determining how well a community is doing in attracting shoppers from outside the community. While the measurement isn’t precise, it is safe to assume the towns with the highest per capita spending levels are doing some of the best jobs of attracting out-of-town shoppers.

• Merriam: $94,563 per person

• Hutchinson: $34,667

• Hays: $32,132

• Garden City: $30,829

• Lenexa: $30,689

• Salina: $28,571

• Topeka: $25,439

• Overland Park: $24,871

• Leawood: $24,660

• Derby: $24,092

• Manhattan: $23,801

• Emporia: $22,795

• Olathe: $22,778

• Dodge City: $20,498

• Lawrence: $20,457

• Kansas City: $18,899

• Shawnee: $18,217

• Leavenworth: $14,279

The median for that list was $24,376. So, Lawrence was about 16% below the median. The big question is: Where do we think Lawrence should be on that list? Historically, it has been a bit of a loaded question.

There are some people who say Lawrence will never get very high on this list because it is so close to so many other big retail markets. Lawrence is basically less than an hour’s drive from eight of the 13 largest retail markets in the state. Having some distance between yourself and other large retail markets is certainly helpful in becoming a destination. Places like Hays, Garden City and Salina have used that to their benefit in ranking high on this list.

But the list also shows you can have strong per capita retail numbers even if you are next to a major retail market. Hutchinson is about an hour’s drive from Wichita, yet Hutchinson still has one of the highest per capita retail sales numbers in Kansas. Derby is even closer to Wichita, and it has per capita numbers that are about average.

Numbers like that lead some people to believe Lawrence is underperforming as a retail market. They argue that the city has been too restrictive in allowing new retail projects, like large commercial developments that have been proposed several times for the South Lawrence Trafficway and SLT intersection.

These numbers aren’t conclusive enough to settle that debate. But they might be a reminder that Lawrence leaders should set some goals for what level they want the retail market to perform at. Setting some goals for how much retail sales should grow in comparison to other major Kansas markets might be useful.

After all, the stakes are high. The city relies heavily on sales tax collections, and they notoriously are one of the most volatile types of taxes. Setting some goals, and keeping a close eye on them, could help avoid trouble down the road.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.