Santa Ana’s Secret: Big Spenders

Times Staff Writer

Fourth Street in Santa Ana is 42 miles and a socioeconomic world away from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

But like the more well-known avenue of glamour, 4th Street -- a magnet for Latino immigrant shoppers throughout Southern California -- stands as a center for luxury goods, making Christmas a busy season.

Jewelry stores, dress shops and other businesses bustle this time of year, the transactions conducted mostly in Spanish and the spending often in the thousands.

Although the scene repeats itself in many of California’s immigrant communities, the 4th Street area is the largest Latino shopping district in Orange County, according to Elsa Gomez, president of the business group La Calle Cuatro Assn.

One member, Ray Rangel, says he knows his customers and they are often willing to pay top dollar for what they like.


“Our customers are not cheap,” says Rangel, owner of R&R; Sportswear, which has a large inventory of high-end western wear. “If they like something, they buy it. Income doesn’t matter. Our customers pick first and ask the price second.”

The shopping spectacle in Santa Ana reflects the fact that the city has the largest percentage of Latino residents of any big city in California.

Shoppers “come from everywhere,” said Sam Romero, a 4th Street merchant who sells religious articles. “We have people come in from Oceanside, Moreno Valley, Whittier and Riverside, besides the local folks.

“We’ll even get people from L.A. looking for specialty items.”

Awash in signs saying “Feliz Navidad” and other greetings of the season, a five-block stretch of 4th Street is usually packed with shoppers and gawkers on weekends and at Christmastime. Many say they are looking for gifts to take to Mexico and other countries where they will visit relatives.

Special events sweeten the pot. A 12-piece band plays Christmas songs. A Dec. 2 event with an appearance by Santa Claus attracted more than 5,000 people, Rangel said. A Virgin of Guadalupe procession Dec. 10 drew 2,000 people. More such events are scheduled before Christmas.

The events “create a Christmas atmosphere. It brings people in and we hope it helps sales,” said Rangel, who sells, among other things, $2,900 mink and beaver Stetson hats, $800 ostrich skin cowboy boots and $160 bronze and silver belt buckles.

Sales in 2004 in the downtown business district of Santa Ana totaled $103 million, second in Santa Ana to the Westfield MainPlace mall, with sales of $187.5 million, according to city estimates based on sales tax revenue.

“It’s an area that is busy seven days a week, Monday to Monday. There are people shopping here constantly,” said Bill Mannis, the city’s downtown development manager.

Mina Bridal sells this season’s made-to-order Christmas gowns, with $400 price tags. Customers pick gowns from photos in the store and are then measured for a dress that fits just right in the color they choose -- often red.

Across the street, Valencia Jewelers’ most popular item is the men’s 14-karat-gold identification bracelet, weighing nearly half a pound and selling for $7,000 with diamonds, or $5,000 without. Some feature nicknames in Spanish, such as “The Wolf” or “The Tiger.” A smaller version for baby boys sells for $865.

The store’s second most popular item is a $2,259 set of seven women’s diamond-cut gold bracelets worn together to represent each day of the week.

“Latinos like gold,” explains owner Victoria Valencia, whose store has been open 30 years. “Maybe they don’t have other things, but they have their gold.”

Teresa’s Jewelers, just steps away, offers matching sets such as a diamond ring, diamond earrings and a diamond pendant that sell for $700 to $5,000. This year, said owner Teresa Saldivar, the store had a run on $3,000 Wittnauer watches with diamonds.

Pendants with religious themes also sell big, she added.

On Dec. 12, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a customer walked in to buy his wife, Guadalupe, a pendant. While there, he picked up two more with different images of the virgin, which will be gifts for Christmas and Valentine’s Day. The total cost was $800, she said.

“There’s a lot of money out there,” Saldivar said. “It can really surprise you.”

Eustebio Rivera, a 33-year-old Santa Ana construction worker, is among those getting an identification bracelet this Christmas.

“Really, it’s a gift to myself. I feel that I have worked very hard, and I really deserve it. I’m going back to Mexico for Christmas and I’m going to be wearing it,” said Rivera, whose bracelet weighs 7 ounces.

For his trip home to Mexico, Beniano Iniquez of Riverside, who works in a mattress factory, got himself a $1,200 Stetson hat.

“You can’t deny yourself what you want,” Iniquez said. “It works against nature. You need to give in to what you really want.”

Immigrant shoppers often splurge on products that enhance their appearance, said Derene Allen, vice president of the San Francisco-based marketing company Santiago Solutions Groups, which helps companies attract Latino customers.

Like many others, immigrants are interested in status symbols, she said.

“Whereas the home may be humble, when they go out in public, they want to shine,” Allen said. “Looking at these households, it might seem that one might not be able to afford these things.”

Heavy immigrant spending on products such as jewelry, clothing, western wear, cars and electronic devices “is the best-kept secret in retail,” said Loui Olivas, a business professor at Arizona State University.

“These people may be out in front of Home Depot looking for jobs or doing gardening work, but on the other hand these same people are consumers capable of buying some high-end items, and they do so,” Olivas said.

In Latin American culture, he explained, “you should showcase what you own, whether it’s a $10 bracelet or a $10,000 bracelet. You showcase it proudly. So it’s not surprising that immigrants continue to purchase high-end products -- such as clothing, jewelry, autos, DVDs -- and they are key consumers of those products.”

Many newcomers to the U.S. may find this is the first time they have had enough cash to make such a purchase, he said.

For those who don’t have it, stores offer layaway plans, and even credit without interest. Valencia said 90% of customers who buy on credit pay back in full. Rangel, who works in the store with his wife, Delia, allows customers to buy items such as ostrich boots on layaway. He doesn’t bother taking their names. He’s convinced they will be back to pay in full.

The customers “might do without eating,” says Delia Rangel with a chuckle, “but they will have the boots.”