WASHINGTON — The sniper attacks in Virginia, Maryland and near the nation’s capital have had an impact on retail and tourist-related businesses across the region as people have changed their habits in response to the palpable tension and threat.
On Monday, hopes of an end to the shootings quickly faded and a wave of uncertainty again gripped the Washington area as two men taken into custody for questioning in the sniper attacks that have left nine dead and three critically wounded proved to be unfruitful.
Although shopping centers like Tyson’s Corner Center in McLean, Va., and the Fashion Center at Pentagon City in Arlington, Va., appeared busy this weekend, retailers said they felt the impact as schools canceled weekend events, parents kept kids home and tourist operators piled up the cancellations.
The present and future consequences of the attacks on the local economy is still unclear.
Several retailers in the area claim sales are off 10 to 15 percent this month. Comparisons to October 2001 should have been easier, because business this month last year was reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks. But for many stores, sales have been tougher to come by.
Some, though, claim the effects have been slight. Wal-Mart, for example, said overall comparable-store sales last week were on track for a 2 to 4 percent increase for the month. On a recorded call, the company said while not enough to materially affect overall results, stores in the Baltimore and Washington areas were affected by the sniper concerns, specifically in the Halloween categories.
Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy at George Mason University, claimed the local economy has not been hurt seriously by the sniper attacks, but he acknowledged the longer the killer is on the loose, the more likely the economy will suffer. “If every week this guy picks off a couple of people…the more dampening effect this could have.
“Declining sales are attributable more to declining consumer confidence in the stock market and other national issues than the sniper,” Fuller said.
However, he pointed out there has been an economic impact on selected retail outlets and locations.
“If you want to buy a new wardrobe and finish out the fall season, you are going to do it, but you might do it next week now, and you might do it in a mall as opposed to a free-standing store,” he said.
The overall D.C. economy is typically stronger than the national average because of federal government spending, according to Fuller. Of the 51 metropolitan areas with 1 million people or more, D.C. is the only area with unemployment under 4 percent, he said.
He claimed retail sales in the area had recovered to previous levels, even accounting for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and other disruptions of “significant magnitude.”
The shootings have already affected sales at 10 to 12 of Hecht’s 80 department stores, according to Frank Guzzetta, president and chief executive officer.
“There has definitely been an impact in the malls close to the places where there was [sniper] activity,” said Guzzetta, noting performance at these stores has been erratic.
He said the Hecht’s store in Bowie, Md., had the biggest sales decline after the sniper gunned down a 13-year-old boy outside of a middle school within a mile of a Hecht’s store.
“That store had been performing tremendously but right after that, there was a real falloff of business,” Guzzetta said.
Despite the sales fluctuations, Guzzetta said he doesn’t expect the shooting to hurt overall fall sales, and that many other factors influence sales at his stores.
“Political uncertainty [a possible war with Iraq] has a bigger, but less direct, impact on consumer confidence,” Guzzetta said. “Getting that settled is more critical to having a good holiday business.”
Some executives at upscale retail boutiques in Chevy Chase, Md., claim the sniper attacks have directly affected sales.
“While business is holding well, it is clearly down since [the first day of the sniper attacks],” said Peter Marx, president of two upscale Saks Jandel stores — one at the Watergate Hotel here and the other in Chevy Chase. “Clearly, it has negatively impacted business,” he said, adding business is off 15 to 20 percent this month compared with a year-ago.
Marx, who said he is not planning any special promotions, said business continues to be erratic, depending on the news of the day and whether or not new attacks occur.
Julia Palmer, group manager of women’s at Bloomingdale’s in Tyson’s Corner, said there has been “slightly less traffic.”
“We have not had as much as we might have,” she said. Palmer noted the store was busy on Columbus Day but traffic was light over that weekend preceding it.
She said sales are up and down, and the store continues to beat daily sales compared with last year.
“People are hesitant to come to the mall, but at some point they realize they have to live their lives,” Palmer said.
Other retailers also claim sales are on target and don’t expect a big impact.
“Some customers have voiced concern but we had good business on Saturday,” said Catherine Bartels, vice president and general manager at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase. “I would say that certainly people are reticent but it depends on what happens on a particular day,” she said, referring to the latest sniper attacks.
“It will have a negligible impact on our sales,” she said, noting the store’s sales are “trending above last year.”
Bartels also noted Saks works with customers over the phone and makes home deliveries to local customers, but she could not say whether there has been a pickup in deliveries because of the shootings.
Sales at MicMac Bis, another Chevy Chase boutique, are off 10 to 15 percent, according to Henri Peker, owner of the store.
“Last week was really terrible,” Peker said. “October is usually one of our best months but we are really feeling the tension.”
He attributed the sales declines to several factors, including the sniper and the possibility of a war with Iraq.
“It is a different feeling now than after Sept. 11,” Peker said. “With Sept. 11, people think it can’t happen again but with the sniper, they feel like it could happen to anyone at any time.”