Los Angeles-area retailers weary from months of economic hard-ship were resigned to more of the same Tuesday as the devastation from a deadly wildfire mounted.

This story first appeared in the September 2, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Although more humid and moderate temperatures were expected to aid firefighters, merchants were braced to endure the fallout from a week of flames and smoke that has burned across more than 200 square miles, killed two firefighters, destroyed dozens of structures, forced thousands of evacuations and imperiled 12,000 homes.

“The heat from the fires is affecting all of Los Angeles,” said Fraser Ross, owner of the Kitson stores. “People are not used to it, and they don’t go out. It scares off tourists, too.

“Any natural disaster like this is just emotional for people,” he said. “It puts them in doubt. The water cooler topic is: How will it affect businesses and livelihoods? We just try to push on and pray for rain.”

Experts said it was premature to calculate the overall economic losses from the biggest blaze in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains north of the city. But property damage from the so-called Station Fire, which was about 25 miles wide and 18 miles long, was estimated at $14 million.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said Fred Levine, owner of the 25-store M. Frederic chain. “As a retailer, you have to be resilient to natural disasters like fire and man-made disasters like the economy. It’s tougher now than ever.”

Smoke from the Station Fire, the largest of eight wildfires in Southern California, created haze as far east as Las Vegas, about 280 miles from Los Angeles.

“We’ve been through the [Hollywood] writers’ strike and all sorts of things….We are used to living through a lot of negative stuff.” said Mark Goldstein, owner of the Madison boutiques in Los Angeles, who noted sales last weekend were softer than he expected.

Sport Chalet, a 55-store sporting goods and apparel chain headquartered in La Canada, a few miles from where the fires were burning, has kept its offices and 20 stores in the area open. “There has been a lift in sales of emergency products, but for back-to-school, this isn’t the best timing,” said chief executive officer Craig Levra. “We plan to stay open as long as no one’s safety is at risk.”

However, a spokesman for Caruso Affiliated’s Americana at Brand shopping center in Glendale predicted an increase of traffic in the coming days “because people use the centers to escape.”

Authorities said they did not expect the Station Fire to be contained until Sept. 15.

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