FLA. STORES: OPAL'S PATHWILL AFFLICT OCTOBER SALES

Byline: Neal Turnage --with contributions from Michael McNamara, New York

SARASOTA, Fl.--Retailers in the Florida Panhandle were back in operation Saturday, after Hurricane Opal paralyzed the area for three days. But many projected weak sales for the Columbus Day weekend and the rest of October. The storm hit the Panhandle Wednesday evening, causing particular damage to the Santa Rosa Mall in Fort Walton Beach. The mall suffered power outages for three days, and there was no water until Saturday afternoon. There was also some structural damage, and several skylights were blown out.
The Pensacola and Panama City malls in the same region reopened Friday and had suffered minor roof damage and power outages.
State officials reported that the storm caused about $2 billion in damages to personal property and businesses.
Vickie Warner, marketing director for the Santa Rosa mall, said, "Our October is going to be off. Not only are we going to lose normal business, we've also lost the momentum we built up with sales and promotions that were in progress."
Warner said some areas serviced by the mall were "totally devastated."
Homes along Holiday Beach, 10 miles east of the mall, were leveled. There was also heavy destruction to Okaloosa Island, one mile east, and Navarre Beach, five miles to the west. Warner explained that most people in the area were too preoccupied with essentials, such as rebuilding their houses and buying food, to shop for clothes.
"At this point mall traffic is extremely light," she said late Saturday afternoon. "When the insurance money kicks in, I think we'll see a good deal of improvement," she noted, adding that insurance vans had set up makeshift stations in the mall's parking lot. "I still believe we'll have a really dynamite Christmas."
Other retailers also felt that Opal hit at a time when business expectations are high. Fall promotions had kicked in, and the Columbus Day weekend, an intense period of promoting, usually draws far more traffic than typical weekends, they noted.
Nevertheless, merchants such as Casual Corner manager Rhonda Hines were back at work Saturday morning trying to make the most of it. Hines said the store had no merchandise damage, but reported that traffic was "definitely on the lighter side."
A curfew was lifted Saturday evening, but Hines noted that traffic was still down, because local authorities were advising people not to leave home unless absolutely necessary.
The mall was asked by the Okaloosa sheriff's department to close at 6 p.m. on Saturday evening, even though the curfew had been lifted.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we start to see a lot of returns," Hines said. "People need the money to buy food and put it towards building materials."
Hines added that she expects Casual Corner may consider adding promotions to entice shoppers back. At Victoria's Secret, manager Deneise Cunningham reported that traffic had been very light at her store as well. Basics, such as bras and underwear, she said, seemed to be the bestsellers. J.C. Penney's store manager Jan Pooley said the store experienced some minor damage to its structure, which was fixed by Saturday. "Traffic is light," she said on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Ray Hendrix, manager of the Sears store in the Santa Rosa mall, said that while his men's business was light, juniors and shoe departments were going full tilt. Denim shorts and shirts were the biggest sellers, followed by sweatshirts and flannel shirts. Utility boots were also selling well. Hendrix said that there had been some minor damage to his store's structure and some leaks occurred, "but everything's back up and running now, and the merchandise was all OK."
While Opal affected retail sales, Southeastern textile and fiber operations in Georgia, Florida and Alabama--which had shut down Wednesday afternoon in preparation for the heavy rain and high winds--returned to their normal production schedules either Thursday evening or Friday morning.
"We were very lucky," said a spokeswoman for Monsanto, which operates a nylon intermediates plant in Pensacola, Fla.
Production, halted Wednesday at 5 p.m., had resumed early Friday morning, she said, "without a hitch."
Other Southeastern-based textile and fiber companies closed some operations but were fully operational as of Friday morning, including Swift Textile's denim plant at Columbus, Ga.; WestPoint Stevens' offices at West Point, Ga.; Burlington Industries' carpet plant at Dahlonega, Ala., and Courtaulds Fibers' rayon plant at Axis, Ala.

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