Rioters Storm British Retailers

Observers believe the violence will impact already wobbly consumer confidence.

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LONDON — Rioters continued to take to the streets of Britain’s major cities Tuesday, looting stores and setting fire to a Miss Selfridge unit in Manchester.

This story first appeared in the August 10, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Stores were advised to close early as the violence intensified in northern and central England, but was brought under control in London. A 16,000-strong police force patrolled the streets of the capital, where businesses from Smythson and Kurt Geiger to Foot Locker and TK Maxx have been vandalized and looted since Monday.

An Arcadia spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday on the attack in Manchester in the Midlands. There, hundreds of youths streamed through the city center, fighting running battles with riot police. The Diesel store was looted, as were a string of local businesses. In the West Midlands, there were reports of outbreaks of violence in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.

In Birmingham, some 500 riot police were guarding the Mailbox, a high-end shopping center. Earlier in the week, a Louis Vuitton store there had its windows smashed, while the city’s upscale Bullring shopping mall — home to stores including Selfridges, Hugo Boss and A|X Armani Exchange — also fell victim to the rioters. Stores including New Look, Thomas Sabo, Sports Direct and Foot Locker had their windows smashed and remained shut Tuesday morning. An Emporio Armani store, which was not damaged, also remained shut. The rest of the shopping center, which was not affected, opened as normal, but shut early at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

In London, Bond Street’s luxury retailers descended into the trenches on Tuesday evening, closing early, boarding up shop fronts and stripping their windows of all merchandise. Carpenters were nailing wooden boards to the front of the Chanel boutique around 6:15 p.m. and Asprey’s windows and front display room — partially visible from the street — were emptied of all merchandise, as were those of Bulgari, Cartier, De Beers and Georg Jensen.

Shops including Burberry, Hermès and Louis Vuitton all had their grates pulled down, while Ralph Lauren, Church’s and Yves Saint Laurent removed all window displays. The stores looked as if they were vacant.

Meanwhile, the windows of the Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly were covered with grates, as were those of some Sainsbury’s and other supermarkets. Small clusters of police were spotted patrolling the streets around Mayfair.

Rumors swirled throughout the capital of rioters moving into the city center, but most proved untrue. A Harrods spokesman denied rumors that the store had been looted by rioters, saying it closed as usual and that the Knightsbridge streets were relatively quiet.

Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson both cut short their summer holidays to deal with the crisis, and Cameron even called parliamentarians back to London to help.

On Tuesday, Johnson wrote in the Evening Standard newspaper that he felt “a blinding anger at the callousness and selfishness of the rioters,” and “ashamed at the actions of a small but significant minority of our fellow Londoners.”

One man was shot dead Tuesday and another was hospitalized in Ealing, west London. More than 500 arrests have so far been made, with more than 100 charged.

The violence erupted Saturday when rioters — many of whom are adolescents — used a peaceful protest against police in Tottenham, north London, to wage war on the neighborhood’s high street, vandalizing and looting shops, and torching police cars and buildings. The peaceful protest was staged after police shot dead a local man in an allegedly unprovoked attack.

Shops including JD Sports, Foot Locker, Curry’s, Sainsbury’s, Bhs and T-Mobile were among the victims, as were a slew of local businesses, from corner newspaper and candy stores to fine jewelry and hardware shops.

On Monday night, the violence temporarily spread to affluent Notting Hill. The Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury on Ledbury Road was stormed by rioters armed with bats demanding jewelry and mobile phones from diners. Restaurant staff eventually chased them away.

Boutiques in nearby Westbourne Grove, another wealthy northwest London neighborhood filled with fashion and luxury boutiques, also saw some rioting: A Smythson store had its front door damaged and was closed all day Tuesday, a company spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, a Debenhams department store in Clapham, south London, was looted and vandalized, with the Kurt Geiger concession completely picked clean, according to an eyewitness. A Kurt Geiger spokesman declined to comment. Also, TK Maxx units in Lewisham, southeast London, and Ealing in the west were also looted.

For the second day running, the British Retail Consortium, expressed its disgust at the looting and rioting.

“The shocking levels of lawlessness breaking out across the U.K. are hitting the heart of our communities. The police have shown great courage in facing the vandals, but it is imperative retailers know that resources and plans are in place to prevent any repeat of this trouble,” said Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC, the retailers’ trade association.

“These criminal acts destroy community resources, hurting local businesses and threatening people’s jobs. Staff are being intimidated and traumatized. Those responsible must be prosecuted and punished. Retailers and their staff are particularly vulnerable and need protecting.”

It is clear the rioters — who have repeatedly been pictured scampering down streets laden with overflowing boxes of clothing, sneakers, jewelry, alcohol, and cigarettes — have little, if any, ideological drive or purpose.

While some newspapers have been quick to point the finger at Britain’s latest raft of austerity measures, rising food and fuel prices, and generations of ingrained poverty in certain neighborhoods, others say the problem is more immediate and straightforward.

“The desire to get hold of other people’s property is what is driving the rioting now. The vast majority of what we’re seeing is self-interested, antisocial behavior,” said Nick Cowen, a crime researcher at Civitas, an independent social policy think tank in London. “These are people who fancy a bit of looting, who don’t really have a whole lot to do, and who are not routinely victimized by the police.”

But Cowen also pointed the finger at the Metropolitan Police. “They have an unfortunate habit of attempting to cover up serious errors, especially when these have led to the deaths of civilians,” he said, adding their reputation has also been damaged by the recent phone hacking scandal, where some senior officers have been accused of taking bribes from Rupert Murdoch’s News International and of misconduct.

“There is a legitimate mistrust of the police, they have lost trust among sections of the public,” Cowen said. “What these rioters see is a lack of authority on the street.”

Observers believe the violence will impact already wobbly consumer confidence. On Tuesday, Freddie George, a retail analyst Seymour Pierce in London, said in his comment on U.K. July retail sales: “We expect consumer confidence to remain weak and sentiment is unlikely to be helped by the additional factors of U.K. rioting and the stock market correction. We continue to expect H2 to be very difficult for retailers as personal disposable income is still declining and pay rises hard to come by.”

July sales in the U.K. were up 2.6 percent, with fashion retailers up 3.7 percent year-on-year.

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