LOS ANGELES — Some fearful shoppers in the biggest U.S. retail market stayed away from stores Thursday because of a threat of a potential terrorist attack at an unspecified shopping mall in the vicinity of the Federal Building on the city’s west side here.
“It’s killing us,” said Gene Thompson, senior vice president of security for Macerich Co., which owns the 160-door Westside Pavilion, anchored by a Nordstrom and Robinsons-May, less than 2 miles from the Federal Building. “Business is significantly off. There are some people shopping, but this is not a normal day.” He said business may be back to normal in a day or two. “We’ll see,’’ he said. “What’s gone is gone.”
Enclosed malls, even with the emergence of outside shopping promenades in recent years, remain at the center of Los Angeles County’s $75 billion-plus in annual retail sales, as well as the area’s culture — mythic and real. The malls have been parodied and celebrated in songs such as “Valley Girl” and the 1991 movie “Scenes from a Mall,” in which Woody Allen and Bette Midler bickered their way through the Beverly Center.
California is considered the nation’s biggest retail market based on sales and square footage of shopping centers, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The state’s 6,243 shopping centers attract an estimated 24.8 million people each month and last year generated $248.4 billion in sales through 735.7 million square feet.
As security was tightened at the Westside Pavilion and the two other major malls closest to the Federal Building, Santa Monica Place and the Westfield Shoppingtown Century City, the fear and uncertainty was reflected during lunchtime in the 14-restaurant food court at Westside Pavilion, where many workers said business was as much as 40 percent off.
The Nordstrom beauty department was sparsely populated on both sides of the counters. A MAC Cosmetics artist, who asked not to be identified, said, “I got 30 calls from friends and family about this and I don’t feel comfortable being here. I may even leave early.”
Six employees at Pacific Sunwear at Westside Pavilion called manager Andrea Williams at her home on Wednesday night to tell her they wouldn’t be working after the threat advisory was made public in broadcast news reports.
“They said, ‘Don’t even call, we’re not coming in,’” said Williams, the only employee at the store that sells surf and skating apparel. She said she asked her general manager “if I could have one of those exempt days where I don’t have to sell a dollar. He said, ‘yes.’ Believe me, I’m not thrilled about it. It’s not like we’re going to make any money today.’’
Television news helicopters were in the air over the shopping malls, and broadcast satellite trucks and reporters added to the sense of anxiety, mall officials said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Brian Roehrkasse, said federal officials received the mall threat from an “individual” earlier this week. He declined to say in what form the threat came or the actual day it was transmitted.
Los Angeles police said they made the uncorroborated threat public because of the specific date and nature of the supposed target — a shopping mall. A uniformed Los Angeles officer at Westside Pavilion, Munif Ali, said the police presence was “two to three times more than we normally have at the mall. We want to have a visual presence as a deterrent. We’ve been here since the early morning before the mall opened and we’ll be here way after it closes. It may not end today, we just don’t know.”
Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn’s office did not comment on the threat at press time.
Away from the malls, and in typical California fashion, many shoppers were unfazed.
On Beverly Hills’ posh Rodeo Drive, Angela Janklow-Harrington, managing director-special projects of Dolce & Gabbana, said the alert “wouldn’t slow our customers down. I’m getting in my car right now and traffic on Rodeo is status quo — as bad as always.”
The International Council of Shopping Centers, the trade organization for the nation’s malls, held conference calls for its security task force. Asked about the impact of the terror alert, Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman, said, “We don’t think it will necessarily transcend outside the immediate area.’’
Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America’s Research Group, a consumer behavior and strategic marketing firm, said, “The maximum impact is about a 35 percent decline at malls. Over a third of Americans say they would definitely curtail their shopping or other activities.
“We’ve surveyed consumers four times’’ since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said. “Usually you see a freeze in consumer shopping in certain categories for quite awhile. In this case, there will probably be at least a lingering effect for one or two weeks. People ask themselves, ‘What happens if [the authorities] got the day wrong?’”
Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Council, said the Mother’s Day holiday on May 9 may help offset any retail sales losses. “As soon as they lift the alert it will be back to business as usual,” he said.
“It’s obvious people are going to avoid any mall, and not only today,” said Kenneth A. Wasik, director of the consumer products group Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin. “Tomorrow, this scare is still going to feel fresh, and a week from now, some people will still be holding out.”
— With contributions from David Moin, New York, and Joanna Ramey, Washington