Retailers Avoid Hanna Damage, but Ike Looms

Tropical storm's impact minimal; New Orleans stores reopen.

Retailers along the eastern seaboard returned to relative normality on Sunday after Tropical Storm Hanna whipped up the coast, drenching most areas, but doing little major damage.

This story first appeared in the September 8, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

However, Hurricane Ike churned across the Caribbean and could threaten South Florida and the Gulf Coast, even as New Orleans stores began reopening and residents continued to return after the city was evacuated last week because of Hurricane Gustav.

In New York, it seemed tourists still came out to shop Saturday despite the downpour.

A spokeswoman for Henri Bendel said, “Fortunately, our business wasn’t impacted by the rain at all.” Saks Fifth Avenue also reported little effect on foot traffic from the rain.

But specialty stores in more residential areas of the city saw traffic lessen. Intermix on 77th Street and Madison Avenue was busy in the morning and early afternoon before the rain, but described business late in the day as “dead.” The Intermix on Prince Street in SoHo also said traffic slowed down because of the storm.

Sunday brought sunshine and blue skies to the area and Fifth Avenue was again packed with shoppers. Some customers made purchases at a street fair on 52nd Street from Lexington Avenue to Seventh Avenue. Saks saw healthy foot traffic around midday, and though the Bendel’s spokeswoman said it was too early to tell if there was an increase over Saturday’s activity, the store was brimming with shoppers

In New Orleans, residents tried to shift from evacuation mode to business-as-usual as retailers rushed to open stores. Balancing staffing shortages as employees made their way back, many retailers had abbreviated store hours and some found the effort worth their while.

Eager to make up for almost a week off, merchants hurriedly had prepped shops for the anticipated surge of weekend shoppers. With a kind of “déjà vu over all again” resignation, many were wary about Hurricane Ike’s anticipated path.

Most suburban malls in the New Orleans metropolitan area had reopened by Saturday. One of Lakeside Shopping Center’s anchor stores, Dillard’s, reopened to shoppers and construction workers who ducked in and out of work zones as crews laid tile on floors and others could be heard drilling behind-the-scenes. Dillard’s is undergoing a renovation that is to be completed next month.

Canal Place, the central business district’s upscale shopping center, opened Saturday with only 50 percent of its merchants, but by Sunday at noon, anchor Saks Fifth Avenue was also open.

Along Magazine Street, one of the city’s best-known boutique destinations, some stores remained closed. A few that opened were rewarded with brisk sales. At Ele, owner Adele Ralston said sales Saturday were triple the volume compared with the same day last year.

“I have to say that I was shocked,” said Celeste Mikes, who with her sister, Ralston, owns the store, which mostly sells accessories and shoes. “When I came in Saturday, I didn’t know what to expect — I thought people would be just coming back to town, unpack and go grocery shopping and that I’d be twiddling my thumbs.”

Sale merchandise lured customers into Ele, where all categories were marked down 20 percent across the board. A few blocks away, Blink owner Karen Aupied sought to attract shoppers by placing sale merchandise on racks along the sidewalk. Although she said sales have been flat, she expects business to increase later in the fall and holiday seasons.

“I’m really staying positive,” Aupied said. “People in New Orleans are relentless and they want to be here — and we’re not going anywhere either.”

Other merchants were also trying to play catch up, while staying tuned to the weather. Francesca’s Collections manager Jodi Asher prepped the store to reopen Sunday — even as three employees were waiting to evaluate the path of Hurricane Ike before deciding whether to return.