L.A. Shopping Returns, for a Second Time

Kali Hays

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The traffic is back in Los Angeles and, for some retailers and brands, so is a degree of shopping.

This past weekend was something of a re-reopening for retail in the vast city. Although California Gov. Gavin Newsom abruptly allowed on May 26 for in-store shopping to resume after more than two months of it being prohibited due to the coronavirus pandemic, and L.A. city officials quickly followed, the reopening of some retail that followed was very short-lived.

Malls and some brands were understandably eager to get doors open again that week and rushed to do so, even if the reopening was a surprise. It was only 10 days before that curbside pickup started to be allowed for nonessential retail and talks major retailers were having with city and state officials pointed to in-store retail not returning until sometime in August. But some luxury brands that dashed to reopen were rewarded with shoppers who seemed just as eager to spend their money. 

The Gucci flagship on Rodeo Drive was teeming with at least 20 shoppers on the afternoon of May 28 and the roughly 10 staffers in the store were rushing to keep up with people wanting to see bags, try on shoes and pay for what they wanted to take home. One man who was in his early 40s and declined to give his name, was visibly excited when he saw that Gucci was “finally” open again. 

“This is my favorite brand,” the man said, wearing a blue windbreaker, camo joggers and rubber slide sandals with socks.

He hadn’t shopped much online during the economic shutdown, mainly because, “When I spend, I want it now.” He wasn’t sure what he wanted to buy at Gucci, maybe another windbreaker, probably a couple new pairs of shoes, he wanted to see what was on offer. “I’m fixin’ to spend $5,000 or $10,000 right now,” he admitted.

In the next 20 minutes or so, at least half-a-dozen shoppers came out of the shop with one, two, three bags each. People were there to shop, even if other luxury outposts on Rodeo that had managed to open with short notice (Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Goyard) were still empty. 

The enthusiasm at Gucci proved to be short-lived, however. 

The week that Angelenos could return to in-store shopping saw the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. It took a few days, but by the weekend, Los Angeles started to erupt with rage at not only the killing of Floyd, but a number of other killings in recent years of unarmed Black people at the hands of police as well as white citizens. As had been broadcast and reported out of Minneapolis — where initial days of mass protests that saw thousands of people gather peacefully turned into nights of vandalism and property damage by people that Black Lives Matter advocates strongly disavowed — by the night of May 28, L.A. businesses were seeing damage.

After daily protests against Floyd’s killing and the treatment of the four officers involved (all of whom have since been charged with Floyd’s murder) started to gain momentum, luxury retail in L.A. quickly began to close again and board up after incidents of vandalism in cities like Atlanta and Portland, Ore. Malls and other retail establishments from the East Side to the Valley, Santa Monica to Long Beach, followed suit as small numbers of people thought to have no involvement in the massive, peaceful protests happening across L.A. (many intentionally staged in monied and predominantly white neighborhoods) took to vandalizing and looting scores of stores across the city.

By early in the first week of June, vandalism and looting had all but stopped in L.A. But retail was still apprehensive and waited about two full weeks to begin reopening. Still, across the city, some stores remain closed and boarded up. 

Others, even those that experienced damage, are again open for business. Alexander McQueen on Rodeo (which did not board up before the first weekend of protests and was broken into and burglarized by dozens of young, seemingly mostly white, men) was open by June 13. Its glass was still missing, replaced by plywood, but what remained of the front door was open, should anyone have wanted to shop.

And actually, the additional two weeks of closure allowed for a number of brands and businesses that were unable to open right after the in-store shopping ban was lifted to do so this time around. Most shops on Rodeo were open over the weekend, while the opposite was true two weeks earlier.

Five people were waiting in front of Cartier, which was operating on an appointment-only basis; Louis Vuitton had at least 15 people inside, checking in through a new app that would text shoppers when an associate was available to help them with their shopping; Ralph Lauren was empty, but open; Dior had about eight shoppers in its men’s store, while its women’s store was empty; Gucci was again relatively busy. A father and son were looking at women’s bags, shopping for a belated Mother’s Day gift. A middle-aged man was shopping for himself, alone, “just glad to be out of the house.” He bought a shirt and a pair of sunglasses. A polite associate standing at the entrance of Gucci ensured that everyone who came inside knew they were to wear a mask and asked them to try and stay at least six feet apart from other shoppers. Anyone who came in a group of three or more was asked if they were OK to remain as a group “for the duration” of their visit. It was by far the most communicative about what was expected of shoppers in-store.

Notable exceptions to the reopening on Rodeo were Gucci’s just-opened restaurant, which was still closed even though inside dining in California has resumed (it reopened on Monday); Chanel, which was not only closed but seemingly empty of all merchandise, and Prada, which still had its black plywood barricade up. Still, the number of people on and around Rodeo was low compared to a typical, pre-pandemic Saturday. The area is a destination for tourists, as is much of L.A. in general, but a new study by the U.S. Travel Association expects that travel and tourism in the U.S. will be down by 50 percent this year.   

There was a similar shopping vibe to that of Rodeo at other shopping hubs in L.A. over the first weekend of retail’s re-reopening. Certain luxury stores that were open were surprisingly busy, while stores remained quiet.

At the Beverly Center, a Taubman property in West Hollywood that sustained some damage during the early days of protests, there were small lines by Saturday morning in front of Vuitton, Balenciaga and Tiffany. The Foot Locker also had at least 10 people inside, and there were small groups of friends and families wandering around the mall.

“We’re at about 40 percent to 50 percent normal traffic,” Jackie Plaza, a spokeswoman for the Beverly Center, said, “which feels really good.” About the same percentage of shops are open in the mall.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Plaza added. “The luxuries have seen really nice traffic.”

She added that data from other Taubman centers in the U.S. that have already been open for a few weeks show there is a build of shoppers over the course of days and weeks.

“It’s definitely been a challenging year, but we’re optimistic,” Plaza said.

The mall is one of the only shopping centers that requires guests to wear a face mask at all times, with signage throughout the property to that effect. Plaza said there are some enforcement efforts going on, mainly with security and concierge personnel, and that there have so far been no reports of incidents with guests refusing to wear masks. But on Saturday, some shoppers could be seen not wearing them while strolling the entirely indoor space.

There was also some apparent impatience among shoppers who were forced to wait outside stores. Many luxury shops in the Beverly Center are smaller, non-flagship locations, so have more limited capacity to handle social distancing restrictions, one of the state mandates to in-store shopping reopening. A family of three waiting to go inside the Vuitton store decided to leave when the associate at the door said she wasn’t sure how long the current shoppers inside would be. A man with his mother waiting at Tiffany, which is also doing one-to-one shopping, began to pressure the associate at the door over the wait time. The resolution was to let them inside the shop to browse while they waited to be helped.

Unlike the first time the Beverly Center reopened two weeks ago, department store anchors Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s have now opened. Discounts were everywhere, ranging from 15 percent to 40 percent (in many cases being added to already marked down merchandise), but shoppers were less common as floors in both stores were near empty.

Other shopping areas of West Hollywood, like Robertson Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and Melrose, were very quiet over the weekend, with many stores still closed, and those that are open unable to rely on big promotions to get customers back.

Department stores were a little busier at Westfield’s mall in Century City, which is mainly outdoor and has Nordstrom, as well as Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, all of which are now open for the first time since pandemic measures were put in place in mid-March.

Macy’s, requiring masks for shoppers, was still quiet, although a pair of young men had come in to shop and each had an armful of jeans and shirts to try on. They admitted that it was the discounts that drew them in. A woman buying a couple of blouses, all marked down, said she has to return to her office for work and “wanted something new.” Even beauty counters in the store were offering a 15 percent discount. The department was still empty.

In Bloomingdale’s, which was not requiring shoppers to wear a mask, there were also a few shoppers wandering the floors. The Gucci accessories boutique was busy with about five people. One woman bought a wallet. A man bought a pair of sneakers. Further in the store, an elderly man was looking for the men’s department. “I just want socks,” he said.  

Nordstrom seems to have taken the most pains to post sufficient signage at its entrances and in store explaining things like its mask-wearing requirement, the sanitizing of sunglasses and accessories, the removal of help-yourself sampling in its beauty department. There are even clear plastic sheets covering all products in beauty aisles directing shoppers to seek an associate for assistance. There were no shoppers in beauty, but if they do show up, it should be clear what the new rules are.

Elsewhere in the store, there was some shopping going on, as well as some discounting, at the moment limited to 25 percent off, even on the designer floor. The dressing rooms were open, but bra fittings are no longer happening. The store still had large sections on each floor roped off for associates to fulfill online orders for shipping and curbside pickup, as well as for returns. Another large section for purchases made for curbside pickup had at least a dozen shelves nearly full of bags waiting to be taken home.

Overall, the tenor of shopping at Century City was subdued. There were certainly people out and about, but it was by no means busy inside any store. The busiest part of the mall, by far, was the second floor outdoor food court, which has a large area for seating and a number of restaurants. At least 50 people were eating and lounging there by early afternoon.

Although retail sales have shown some improvement in recent weeks, as nonessential retail in almost all states has reopened, store traffic is still down about 60 percent compared to last year, according to new research from data company Zenreach. If the country does not see a second wave of the virus in the coming months, the company predicts that in-store traffic could again reach pre-pandemic levels sometime in September.

It was a similar story, on a much smaller scale, to that of the Westfield mall at Brentwood Country Mart. The central outdoor seating area at the cozy, barn-style shopping center was packed on Saturday with people eating at shared picnic tables and waiting for food.

Retail shops in the mart, including Doen, Goop, Jenni Kayne, James Perse and Broken English, were less busy, but they were all open for in-store shopping, usually limited to one or two people at a time. A couple of associates at these stores admitted that things were off to a slow start, for the second time, but they were grateful to be back at work.

“We’ll see what happens,” as one associate put it.

A few miles up the coast, the Malibu Country Mart was also teeming with people looking to eat or get Starbucks, with relatively little shopping happening. The mart has actually stayed open for the last two weeks, seeing as it was spared any major protest action. Still, the center’s  normally busy Sephora is not yet open, with the retailer set to reopen stores on June 20. There were associates inside at work wiping down products one by one. Luxury boutique Maxfield has also yet to reopen. One store, the Alcove, was open, as it had been since late May.

“My entire store is on sale,” co-owner Christina Vakhshourpour said, passing her arm over a shop filled with casual women’s apparel but no customers. Nevertheless, she’s happy to be open. Operating online as a small business is a notable expense and even though she received a PPP loan, she has a lot of inventory from what’s essentially two missed seasons of shopping, spring and most of summer.

Her vision of the coming year, from canceling fall orders to the possibility of another wave of the coronavirus hitting the public, is determined but not exactly optimistic.

“It’s basically a clusterf–k,” she said.

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