Police make presence felt on Fifth Ave.

NEW YORK — In any other year, the late summer season at Louis Vuitton’s Fifth Avenue flagship means robust business. American, Japanese and especially Europeans tourists enjoying their traditional August holiday flock to the luxury...

NEW YORK — In any other year, the late summer season at Louis Vuitton’s Fifth Avenue flagship means robust business. American, Japanese and especially Europeans tourists enjoying their traditional August holiday flock to the luxury emporium for its unmatched mix of high-end merchandise and good taste.

But at midday Wednesday, first-floor counters lined with $730 Alma handbags and $200 Monaco scarves were browsed over by fewer than 10 shoppers. Meanwhile, the second floor of this church of conspicuous consumption was conspicuously deserted, save for the presence of a single, idle sales associate.

Although the Louis Vuitton store at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street occupies a singular place in New York’s retail landscape, it was emblematic of the larger pall the Republican National Convention cast on shopping in the city. Indeed, this week the city’s retail landscape looked more like a moonscape.

The timing of the slowdown in retail shopping is far from ideal, as a variety of economic indicators, from plunging consumer confidence to weaker consumer spending, are already pointing to softer second-half results in the sector.

Moreover, the lull is occurring as stores push back-to-school sales and during a week when taxes have been lifted on clothing and footwear that costs less than $110.

When he was fending off critics in the city’s bid to host the RNC, Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimated the convention would generate about $265 million in long-term economic stimulus for New York, including $166 million in direct spending.

But in a Monday press conference held at Macy’s, Bloomberg said that retail stores located closer to Madison Square Garden are more likely to be adversely affected by the convention’s tight security as well as the protesters. Still, he maintained that the convention is still a positive overall for the city. “Long-term, you know, over a period of time, this is one of the better things that could happen to the city, because more people will come here.”

But far from the police barricades and concrete barriers enveloping Madison Square Garden — site of the RNC — police on Wednesday stood guard in front of several Fifth Avenue retailers as shoppers continued their hiatus.

Inside many Fifth Avenue stores midday Wednesday, the mood was subdued even though lunch-time foot traffic on the street was moderately heavy. Several store associates cited recent protests, including one at the nearby public library as well as in Central Park, as deterrents that kept shoppers away.

This story first appeared in the September 2, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Overall, store associates said the amount of shoppers was lower than normal with generally just working professionals visiting the stores. The decrease in traffic began this weekend, they said, as many New Yorkers left the city before the official start of the convention.

When asked if store traffic has possibly increased due to the influx of delegates, a Saks Fifth Avenue associate said: “No, it’s been quite the opposite. We’ve seen a decrease.” Shoppers have taken cues from the media and have fled town, he said.

People aren’t necessarily nervous about the convention being in town, they’re just not in the city, he added, also citing that several offices in the area are closed this week.

Another Saks associate echoed his remarks, saying the department store was “dead” on Monday and Tuesday. By Wednesday, however, the amount of shoppers had increased, he said, though still below normal levels.

“The city just seems dead,” said a Louis Vuitton sales associate, who said store traffic at the luxury retailer’s Fifth Avenue location has dropped off sharply. She speculated that the convention, combined with the upcoming Labor Day holiday, solidified many regular shoppers’ decisions to flee the city for the week.

Another aspect turning off shoppers has been the amount of police controlling traffic on Fifth Avenue with orange cones and metal barriers blocking off certain areas, said the Louis Vuitton associate. Indeed, a huge motorcade of police cars, motorcycles and vans, as well as unmarked, black SUVs sped down Fifth Avenue earlier Wednesday. Onlookers speculated that it was Vice President Cheney arriving for the convention.

The RNC “kind of killed” customer traffic, said a Kenneth Cole associate. He noted traffic on Saturday and Sunday was especially “lower than we expected,” but said Wednesday’s lunch-time traffic was closer to normal.

“It’s no secret that the convention is having an effect on everybody’s business, including ours,” said Dawn Brown, vice president of publicity at Barneys New York.

— With contributions from Anamaria Wilson