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As downtown San Francisco flounders, a Ross store is hotter than ever

People walk through a crosswalk while carrying umbrellas outside a Ross Dress for Less store on Market and Fourth Streets in San Francisco.
Despite other nearby retail struggles, Ross department store on Market and Fourth Streets in San Francisco attracts a steady stream of customers. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

The hottest store in Downtown San Francisco? 

It isn’t the Supreme Shop on Market Street, though it’s occasionally mobbed by sneakerheads for new shoe drops. It certainly isn’t Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent or any of the other gaudy luxury outposts in Union Square.

It’s Ross Dress for Less. As in “Do you love it? I love it!” As in marked-down mom jeans and basic-blue branding that looks as if it was born in 1950s San Bruno—because, in fact, it was.    

On any given weekday along Market Street in the Financial District, Ross Dress for Less shoppers line up around the corner of Fourth Street vying for entry into the chain’s four-story local flagship. Bucking the doom tide that’s roiling the retail landscape downtown—where roughly half of the area's businesses have shuttered since 2019—the Ross at 799 Market St. is going like gangbusters. 

READ MORE: Another Store Will Close at Struggling Downtown San Francisco Mall

A recent visit on a Tuesday afternoon—which local aficionados know to be the best day to shop at Ross—witnessed heaving check-out lines, with wait times reaching 20 minutes, and customers snaking through two levels of the store. The incessant beeping of anti-theft devices strapped to shoes rung out across the aisles. The crowd was diverse in race, sex and age, including local families with toddlers and tourists who seemingly wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

A crowded line of Ross Dress for Less customers stretches through the store
A line of Ross Dress for Less customers stretches into the store's second floor on Tuesday. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

The answer: It was delivery day at Ross, when new items are stocked and the week’s best merchandise is discovered. During The Standard’s visit, newly arrived items, including Hoka running shoes for $80 and Under Armour hoodies ranging from $10 to $30 were being brought onto the men’s department floor.

Gladys Carillo of San Francisco, who was shopping for cleaning supplies, told The Standard she often finds deals for half the price that other nearby stores—like Macy’s—might have listed. Carillo often tries to grab clothes and household goods that she can ship to her family in El Salvador. She treats her visits to Ross as less like a shopping spree than like a competitive sport.

“I have to remind myself that if I don’t grab what I see, when I see it, it will probably be gone the next time I’m here,” she said. 

Born, and Still Booming, in the Bay

Ross was founded by Morris "Morrie" Ross as a department store 12 miles south of the city in San Bruno in the 1950s. It expanded to six stores around the Bay Area by the early 1980s, according to the firm’s website. After a group of investors purchased Ross in 1982, the company’s format changed to an off-price retail model that relies on acquiring branded goods that are overproduced or aren’t moving and selling them at a cut price.

It’s a formula that has had ups and downs on the stock market. Ross’ annual revenue reached a high of $16 billion in 2019 but took a $3.5 billion hit during the pandemic. Ultimately, the company’s formula has proven highly successful in post-pandemic San Francisco.

The store on Market Street is surrounded on all sides by the sad blight of shuttered retail stores. The Old Navy across the street at 801 Market St. closed in July. Zooming out a few blocks, the Whole Foods closed down its Eighth and Market Street location last year, while Nordstrom and a handful of other stores, like Aldo, Adidas and Hollister, have fled or are preparing to depart from the nearby San Francisco Centre—formerly known as Westfield—over the past year.

But inside Ross, all of that carnage is a distant bad dream. Oswaldo Zaragoza, 46, of Castro Valley found himself in San Francisco on Tuesday morning to meet with his accountant. After cruising the city while waiting for his appointment—which included a visit to the Embarcadero and Pier 39—the immense size of the Ross location caught his eye.

Oswaldo Zaragoza, of Castro Valley rides the escalator to check out and pay for goods at the Downtown San Francisco Ross Dress for Less.
Oswaldo Zaragoza, of Castro Valley, rides the escalator to line up and pay at the Downtown San Francisco Ross Dress for Less on Tuesday. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

“It is four floors so I definitely wanted to check it out,” Zaragoza said, adding that he often shops at Ross near his home in the East Bay. “I hoped to find some comfortable tennis shoes for my kids.”

Ross is also a place Zaragoza can go to find deals for his family in Mexico to send back with visiting family or via mail. “I shop for myself here too,” he added. “It is probably one of the most assorted in terms of what you can get and for a range of prices.”

His local Ross doesn’t usually have checkout lines; however, the ones here did not take him by surprise.

“It’s San Francisco,” he said, “and this store—unlike the other ones around here—is pretty affordable. You can get items like high-end perfume for a decent price.”

Surviving the Crime Wave

According to a security guard at the store’s entrance, the line frequently seeping outside of the Downtown Ross is mostly an attempt by management to curb retail theft. 

“We’ve been doing this particular method of letting customers in slowly for the last two years,” said the guard, who declined to provide their name because they were not authorized to speak with the press. “It has been a help stopping some of the thefts around here, but you still have some folks who will try us.”

Ross isn’t the only store deploying front-door security to hold off waves of customers. At the nearby Supreme shop, a three-person security team often limits how many customers can enter, according to a cashier.

People line up to enter during evening hours outside the Downtown San Francisco Ross Dress for Less store.
Shoppers wait in line to enter the Downtown San Francisco Ross Dress for Less on Jan. 17. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

READ MORE: San Francisco Safeway Removes Self-Checkout Due to Theft

“We usually just pay attention to the flow of customers,” said the cashier, who said the store has used this method of limiting the number of customers inside since opening in 2019. “It is a technique that makes things more manageable for us.”

Representatives from Ross and Supreme did not respond to requests for comment on the security measures.

Another anti-theft measure, according to a loss prevention employee for Ross, is an ultra-sensitive device on shoes that constantly beeps throughout the day and needs to be manually turned off by workers.

“It’s an all-day thing. It never stops,” said the worker. “They do it on purpose so that it helps us identify theft easier.”

A person carries Ross shopping bags while walking on the sidewalk near Market and Fourth Streets.
A person carries Ross shopping bags near Market and Fourth streets in San Francisco on Wednesday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

None of the customers the Standard met at two visits to Ross complained about the constant alarms. They were more focused on the deals. Adan Martinez, who shops Ross every week to look for deals on men’s clothing, said the Downtown location has more variety than the store he lives near at the Portrero Center. 

Martinez tries to time his trips around Tuesday shipment days, and enjoys the additional 10% senior discount he gets at the store. His Ross pro tip? It’s better to come early.

“You really want to come when they open,” he said. He added that some of the frequent shoppers peek behind the store on Stevenson Street to see when the shipment truck has arrived. “Because of the discount you’ll see more people here with older relatives. A lot of families, too.”

The Standard visited several other stores in the area including Macy’s, Louis Vuitton, Neiman Marcus and YSL to find out if they were jealous of Ross’s apparent in-vogue success and long lines. None would comment.

Joel Umanzor can be reached at jumanzor@sfstandard.com