After a down month, Lawrence’s retail sales numbers now near the bottom among state’s biggest cities

photo by: Nick Krug

A cashier hands a receipt back to a customer after a purchase at Lawrence's Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop in this file photo from July 6, 2017.

Years ago, tourism leaders used to call every weekend that featured a home KU football game a million-dollar weekend. I don’t know what impact price inflation and fan deflation have had on that figure, but the point is still the same: The local economy gets a big-dollar boost by spending from football fans.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the latest retail sales figures for Lawrence show that September — the real start of football season — don’t look so good. Games were delayed and played with far smaller crowds than normal because of COVID-19 precautions. Retail sales tax collections in Lawrence were down 6.2% compared with the same period a year ago. That was one of the steepest declines of any major retail market in the state.

At least we can take comfort in not being Manhattan, where some people say college football is a slightly bigger deal, right? Actually, not this time. Sales tax collections in the state’s other major college town were off by just 1.1% compared with the same period a year ago.

What’s up? Perhaps K-State fans bought an extra beverage or two to numb the pain from their early-season loss to Arkansas State, while KU fans didn’t know when to buy another beer, given the cup filling up with tears and all.

More likely is that the disparities aren’t football related. 2020 has been a crazy year for retail sales tax collections. I never put too much stock into one month’s worth of results, but they have been interesting to look at in 2020. It is noteworthy anytime a community’s retail sales actually grew during this pandemic. That has happened at times for Lawrence this year, but it certainly did not in September. Here’s a look at the results for 10 of the bigger retail markets in the state:

Shawnee: up 3.7%

Topeka: up 2.0%

Olathe: up 1.4%

Salina: up 0.2%

Manhattan: down 1.1%

Sedgwick County: down 1.7%

Kansas City: down 3.9%

Overland Park: down 4.2%

Lawrence: down 6.2%

Lenexa: down 8.5%

The year-to-date numbers are usually more instructive. Lawrence now has received 11 of its 12 monthly reports for 2020. The most recent numbers are actually from the November report, but because of normal delays in reporting, the figures represent sales made mostly in September. Those numbers show Lawrence’s roller coaster ride has had more valleys than peaks this year. In fact, only Overland Park, which is really mall-dependent and started showing signs of weakness before the pandemic, has had a worse year than Lawrence.

Lenexa: up 1.3%

Topeka: up 1.0%

Sedgwick County: up 0.7%

Olathe: up 0.6%

Salina: up 0.4%

Shawnee: down 0.1%

Manhattan: down 2.7%

Kansas City: down 3.1%

Lawrence: down 3.9%

Overland Park: down 6.7%

The results are being felt in the city’s budget for 2020, but it isn’t as catastrophic as was feared at the beginning of the pandemic. The latest budget report from the city shows that sales tax revenues and use tax revenues — a special sales tax charged to online purchases — are down by about $800,000 from a year ago. That’s a decline of only about 2%, as the use tax figures actually have been growing.

Overall, that is still not a great number, but it is a workable one, especially given some of the federal funding the city received to help with unexpected pandemic expenses. For the most part, it seems that Lawrence and many other parts of the state have avoided a financial crisis spurred by plummeting sales tax revenues. File it under the category of good news in a bad year.


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