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Shoppers Shy Away From Fifth Ave. During Pope’s Visit

While Pope Benedict XVI's visit that ended Sunday may have charmed New Yorkers, it posed a logistical challenge for retailers.

NEW YORK — While Pope Benedict XVI’s visit that ended Sunday may have charmed New Yorkers, it posed a logistical challenge for retailers.

“Our Fifth Avenue store was open, but it was totally blocked,” said Robert Siegel, chairman and chief executive of Lacoste USA. “The police wouldn’t let people move by the store for about five hours, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., [Saturday] and wouldn’t let people in that area with any shopping bags or backpacks.”

The store, considered Lacoste’s flagship, is on the northwest corner of 49th Street. “Our biggest day of the week [Saturday] was off plan by 50 percent in that store, whereas our Madison Avenue store [near 57th Street] was up 35 percent for the day and our SoHo store [at 134 Prince Street] was up 10 percent,” Siegel said.

He believes the Madison and SoHo units might have drawn customers who couldn’t shop on Fifth Avenue. He also said Passover might have contributed to the Saturday figures, and also seemed to have affected Sunday’s business, when there was less impact in Midtown Manhattan from the pope’s visit. “Obviously, there were less people shopping” and many observing the holiday.

During his visit to New York, the pope stayed with Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican’s permanent representative to the United Nations, whose town house is at 20 East 72nd Street. The city closed 72nd Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue from 12:01 a.m. on Friday until 11:30 p.m. on Sunday. Given the proximity of Ralph Lauren’s stores to Archbishop Migliore’s town house, the designer closed both of his children’s units on the northwest corner of 71st Street and Madison Avenue on Saturday and Sunday. The Rhinelander Mansion, at 867 Madison Avenue, was closed on Saturday. “We worked closely with the Secret Service and New York Police Department to ensure that our store team’s efforts were coordinated with theirs,” said a spokesman for Ralph Lauren.

Barneys New York experienced lulls in its business periodically over the weekend. “It was really a case of a couple of hours here and there on Saturday,” said a spokeswoman. “Fifth Avenue was closed, so people couldn’t come in through the men’s store [whose entrance is on 61st Street], but people had no trouble entering on Madison Avenue. There were quiet hours on Saturday when the pope’s procession was on Fifth Avenue and the street was closed. Overall, it didn’t hurt business.”

Saks Fifth Avenue’s New York flagship, between 49th and 50th Streets, is one block south of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the pope said Mass on Saturday morning. Saks was open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Saturday; however, the NYPD limited access to the store’s Fifth Avenue and East 50th Street entrances for security reasons. “A large number of our store associates arrived early, given the Midtown traffic restraints,” said Suzanne Johnson, senior vice president and general manager of the flagship. “Logistically, it was a bit challenging. However, our 49th Street entrances remained open throughout the day. Traffic was lighter than usual during the earlier part of the day, but then picked up significantly in the afternoon. We had many exhilarated shoppers visiting our store after the Mass.”

Tom Cusick, president of the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District, said the papal visit, like any huge parade along Fifth Avenue, is not an uncommon occurrence in the city. “The pope’s visit is unusual, but the circumstances surrounding this type of event aren’t,” he said, noting the BID distributed a flyer telling retailers about street closings and passed on a recommendation from the police department that the stores stay open.

“It’s probable that stores had lighter traffic or lost business,” Cusick said. “This happens maybe 10 times a year. When there’s a large parade, business falls off. People tend to pay attention to what’s going on in the street and others read the newspaper and stay away. I suspect that, from 47th to 53rd Streets, which was the specific closure area, businesses saw their sales go down until about 2 p.m. on Saturday.”