Pope Francis’ whirlwind New York City tour literally stopped traffic and, to a lesser-degree, shopping.
But by Sunday, affected retailers said they were getting back on course with consumers stocking up on fall essentials. Thus far, city officials have skirted both the cost of Pope Francis’ New York visit, as well as its economic impact. Perhaps the biggest upside for the city may be the near nonstop media coverage of his 38-hour stay and the extent to which it portrayed a considerably friendlier New Yorkers. Domestic travelers accounted for 78 percent of the 56.4 million visitors to New York last year, who helped to generate $41 billion in direct spending. Shopping comprised 22 percent of that financial punch. And daytrippers accounted for 48 percent of those U.S. visitors. City officials have not speculated to what extent the papal visit may contribute to this year’s projected 58.1 million visitors.
All in all, the papal visit is exciting for New York, according to Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani, who was part of a small audience with the pope last year in Rome. “He’s really changing the world and attitudes. Even if you don’t realize it, he’s really changing people’s mentality. You know when he said, ‘Who am I to judge?’ That’s a big step,” she said. “He is quite impressive, very easy. He is not a typical pope, but a pope as he should be — in a very human way.”
While the pontiff’s visit to Philadelphia shut down bridges and tunnels, and called for a festival of his favorite films — Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” being tops — and appearances by Aretha Franklin, Mark Wahlberg and Sister Sledge, the New York scene wound up being more of a transportation tie-up first and foremost.
Friday night’s papal mass for 20,000 at Madison Square Garden seemed to have made a dent with stores in Herald Square, where sidewalks are typically overcrowded with afterwork shoppers. Business was “drastically” affected at H&M’s four-floor Herald Square store catty-corner to Madison Square Garden, said manager Carleena Felder on Sunday afternoon. “Usually, Fridays are super-super busy and last Friday was like a normal weekday. But what we lost on Friday we made up on Saturday. There are a lot of tourists shopping. We normally have a significant amount of tourists but today and yesterday, there have been even more. We’ve been selling a lot of coats and sweaters.”
The temporary eight-foot wire fence, security checkpoints and numerous street closings in and around Rockefeller Center that were used as a safeguard for the pope’s vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Sept. 24 wreaked the most havoc, but several retailers persevered. Saks Fifth Avenue remained open, as did some Rockefellers Center area stores like J. Crew and Anthropologie.
A|X Armani Exchange’s Fifth Avenue store at 51st Street wound up having to close at 4 p.m. on Thursday, after learning the store’s entrance would be blocked for security purposes. As a result, daily sales dropped 83 percent compared to the same date last year, according to assistant manager Arelis Martinez. “It really impacted the business, but everything has a balance,” she said. “We needed this visit. We all felt happy. He’s a very good man. He’s validating the message of love toward immigrants and obviously the need for faith in times of challenge. And humility — he’s humble and wants to be with the poor. We lost a little in business, but it was a gain in spirituality for the world.”
A|X Armani Exchange also recouped some of that downturn over the weekend, when sales rebounded 22 percent Saturday and 35 percent Sunday. Many shoppers were attracted by a sale offering up to 40 percent off. Top sellers this weekend included $150 to $190 dresses, $140 to $210 blazers and $290 to $550 coats, Martinez said.
Faconnable had planned to open its Fifth Avenue store across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Thursday, but the New York Police Department advised staffers to not even open. “Around 9, the police said, ‘Just close now, because we’re not going to allow anybody to pass by,'” said sales associate Bob Mahaioui. “And Friday was still slow. The traffic wasn’t there. The city was kind of empty because the pope was in Central Park.”
Combined, those two days resulted in about a $55,000 loss for the store, he said. “Hopefully, with the U.N. in session this week, we’ll be busy. But we’re running against last year’s numbers, which were very strong,” said Mahaioui, who noted that men’s wear is outperforming women’s wear, due partially to the fact that many female clients from South America are looking for lighter-weight items but fall is in store.
Not surprisingly, foot traffic was lighter than usual Thursday and Friday at Anthropologie’s Rockefeller Center store, according to a sales associate who declined to be identified. By Saturday and Sunday business was back to being “par for the course,” with shoppers buying “everything — coats, scarves, dresses,” she said. “Pretty much everyone shopping didn’t know the pope was going to be here.”
At Century 21’s Philadelphia store, store hours were reduced and traffic was down over the weekend, due to the papal visit. A company spokeswoman said, “We expect business and traffic to be back to normal patterns by Tuesday.”
By 9 a.m. Friday some of the 80,000 Central Park-bound people heading to see the pope descended on the Upper West Side even though admission didn’t start until 11 a.m. A clutch of hawkers selling $15 Pope Francis-emblazoned T-shirts and $10 papal flags spread out on the sidewalk near the 60th Street entrance to the Columbus Circle subway entrance, and competitors walked along Columbus Avenue where color-coded checkpoints were set up that funneled ticketholders toward banks of metal detectors. Given the age range and diversity of the crowd, it’s not surprising that Columbus Avenue retailers like Kate Spade, Rag & Bone and Club Monaco were not busy with shoppers. Despite the street closings and disruption to the neighborhood, representatives from Maje, Theory and Olive and Bettes said Friday’s traffic didn’t really make much of a difference to a typical Friday. A few Broadway-based coffee carts seemed to be the big winners, selling 500 coffees by day’s end compared to the usual 300.
Century 21’s Upper West Side store at West 66th also reported an upswing in accessories sales, thanks to an influx of Central Park attendees stopping to shop afterward, according to sales associate Jennifer Hernandez. “They were buying everything — watches, sunglasses, bags. I saw a lot of people with their carts filled up,” she said. “They were telling me they’d gone to see the pope.”
Out on the streets, though, Upper West Side T-shirt hawkers were slashing T-shirt prices and in some cases, underselling each other. “His shirts have holes in them,” one vendor said to a shopper buying a T-shirt from another one.
“Don’t listen to him,” his rival said, before adding to the accusatory, “I’m going to play you like Judas.”