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A YEAR AFTER

Companies Prepared to Pause Purposefully to Mark Sept. 11

September 03, 2002|BONNIE HARRIS and LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

On the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, worker productivity and consumer spending are expected to slow as Americans take time to commemorate the day in ways public and private.

They will pause, once again. And this time the slowdown will be purposeful, with a sharpened sense of community and resolve.

"It is my guess that every organization, company and individual will find a way to commemorate the day somehow," said Frank Scanlan, a spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. "Planting a tree, a moment of silence, meditating alone at home ... it's appropriate if it takes time out of the usual hectic day and it feels right."

Businesses will give employees room to reflect and time off to participate in church and community services. Retailers and other marketers will pull back on advertising and promotions to respect the mood of consumers, and the travel industry expects sluggish activity.

This year "the country will be somewhat immobilized that day," said Thom Nulty, president of Navigant International Inc., a travel management concern in Englewood, Colo., that handles travel for many large companies.

"We are projecting slower-than-normal travel that entire week," Nulty said. "It's not that people are afraid something will happen. Psychologically they're feeling a need to not be traveling."

Airports will be less crowded, with traffic expected to be subdued and solemn pilots asking passengers to remember those who were lost. Several online travel services, including Travelocity and Expedia, have reported that bookings for the day's flights are down 20% as of the last week of August from where they were at the same time last year.

It's unclear what kind of economic effect this year's Sept. 11 slowdown will have on the travel industry, which lost $36 billion in travel spending last year. Yet even in normal times, a Wednesday in mid-September would be seasonally slow for most industries.

Indeed, some companies are explicitly giving employees the week off from travel, and agents said those that are still flying for business are requesting return dates of Sept. 10 rather than Sept. 12. The worry is that if anything should happen Sept. 11 they don't want to be stranded from loved ones as they were last year.

Jim Schmidt, who owns a computer software company called Smartware Inc. in Austin, Texas, said he gave his sales team the option of flying on or around Sept. 11 "to give them some extra family time if they needed it." Several employees still will be traveling to appointments that day but most have chosen to stay home, he said.

"We were finding that clients don't want to be spending the day talking about systems upgrades when there's services to attend and prayers to be said anyway," Schmidt said. "It's going to be a slow week for us. But then again, I guess it should be."

One small, privately held domestic carrier, Spirit Airlines, is letting passengers fly free Sept. 11. The Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based airline, whose 14 destinations include Los Angeles, said its 13,000 seats on 90 flights were snatched up in only a few hours after Spirit announced the promotion Aug. 6.

In Las Vegas, bookings remain about the same as they did leading up to last Sept. 11, but officials expect subdued crowds, and some shows have chosen to go dark.

Stores are likely to be relatively quiet Sept. 11, retail experts predict, but most will be open and conducting business as usual.

"I think you'll see retailers mimic what consumers are doing," said Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation in Washington. "They're going to quietly go about their day-to-day lives on Sept 11."

"I think it's going to be a day when people are in a pretty somber mood," said Michael Baker, director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York. "I don't think it's going to lend itself to a shopping spree."

But with retailers already worried about softer sales in light of a disappointing back-to-school shopping season, some may "hit the panic button" and begin marking down merchandise, said Marshal Cohen, co-president of market research firm NPD Fashion World. Last year, retailers slashed prices to pull customers back into stores, and may feel they have to follow suit this year, he said.

"They won't call it a 9/11 anniversary sale, but it's certainly going to be one," Cohen said. "Retailers are operating on a very short leash. That means at any sign of trouble or short sales verses the year before, they will push this promotions button and [cut prices]."

Still, overall revenue for the day and month almost certainly will be stronger than last year, when stunned Americans sat glued to their television sets and some shopping centers shut down completely. In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, some consumers continued to shy away from malls, fearing they could become the target of terrorists, and sales there fell 8.1% last September, according to the shopping centers council.

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