By  on February 23, 1994

LOS ANGELES -- Just as the struggling California economy seemed to be sputtering along the road to recovery, along came the Great Quake of '94. It not only became the costliest natural disaster in American history, but it effectively choked off the momentum that many retailers were just beginning to feel.

The state's economy -- not in the strongest condition even before the Jan. 17 earthquake that was epicentered in Northridge -- underwent severe trauma. The event has had a profound effect on business for many apparel retailers, cutting volume in some stores since then by more than half. The latest blow was especially painful to shopkeepers who had a stronger-than-expected Christmas and post-holiday season.

A number of chains have been affected by closed stores. Robinsons-May was crippled by seven closings in the Los Angeles area: West Los Angeles, Baldwin Hills and Topanga, and two units each in Northridge and Sherman Oaks. Of the six San Fernando Valley stores, only the North Hollywood unit has reopened. May Company officials declined to comment on how the earthquake affected its California business.

It might be a year before Bullock's can reopen units in Northridge and Sherman Oaks. The two stores were strong performers for the chain, ringing up more than $70 million in annual volume.

Michael Steinberg, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy's West/Bullock's, said business has picked up in nearby units, such as Woodland Hills and Burbank, but he admitted the boost won't make up for the losses. Business since the quake has picked up slowly, Steinberg said, but much of that has come from housewares and glassware -- two categories that needed almost total replacement in quake-ravaged homes.

Steinberg said he expects it to take months, however, before apparel rebounds in the affected areas.

"When you've lost your home, you don't mind sitting around in the same pair of jeans," Steinberg said.

"There are a lot of issues affecting the economy out here," said David Reichert, regional manager for 21 Kmart stores in the Los Angeles area. "But we had a good year last year -- better than I ever thought it would be -- more in hard goods than in apparel. Business had started to come back even before the earthquake, and it has been exceptionally good after. Demand has been tremendous."

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