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Seeking Respite From Reality at the Local Mall

Southland retailers saw an unexpected wave of shoppers over the weekend, though across the country consumers were showing caution.

March 24, 2003|Jon Healey and Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writers

Many Southern Californians flocked to the region's malls and entertainment hubs over the weekend, seemingly seeking solace from the continuous coverage of the war in Iraq by going about their business as usual.

At the Restoration Hardware store in Old Pasadena, manager Augie Galvez said the number of shoppers has been much higher than he expected. "It's been very odd.... It's been kind of like there's no war going on," he said.

As Galvez was talking, Mike Fesperman, a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department, and his wife, Deb, a homemaker and respite-care worker, were buying a wall-mounted bottle opener -- one of a string of purchases they made in Old Pasadena on Saturday. The Fespermans say their routine definitely has been thrown off by the war -- Mike's a sergeant major in the Marine Corps reserves waiting to hear whether he'll be sent to the Persian Gulf, where half a dozen relatives or close friends already have been deployed.

So why go shopping? Getting away from the television was one motive, Deb Fesperman said, but so was spending money and supporting the U.S. economy.

"That's our job here," she said. So is going to rallies to support the troops and "not protesting the war," she added, saying that the anti-war demonstrations are wasting police resources.

But next door at Atomic Garage, a youth-oriented clothing and sporting goods store, assistant manager Masumi Suzuki said business has been "super slow" since the war started. "We're actually having to cut people," she said.

Economists have worried that the onset of war would debilitate the already weakened retail sector. Early indications are that fewer consumers nationwide are hitting the stores, although the decline hasn't been as steep as predicted.

A survey taken over the weekend of 800 Americans found that 18% to 23% fewer people went shopping than would have if there was no war, according to C. Britt Beemer, chairman of Charleston, S.C.-based market research firm America's Research Group. During the Gulf War in 1991, Beemer said, 12% of consumers slowed their shopping.

Although there is some unease about the economy, the main factor in the decline seems to be consumers' "concern about what they want to do outside of the home or away from their family," he said. That's based on anxiety about terrorist reprisals, which has led some consumers to avoid malls, concert halls and other public gathering places, Beemer said.

Another factor is the war coverage on television. Stores that rely on male shoppers are likely to be affected more than stores that cater to women, "since there will be many more men at home watching the war than women," Beemer said.

His survey also showed that consumers are still waiting before making major expenditures. "Big-ticket purchases are pretty much put on hold by consumers," Beemer said.

That's what Hilda Sahakian is doing. The Burbank resident said the economy, not the war, has influenced her spending habits. Sahakian, 54, who owns a travel agency in Sherman Oaks, said she has been thinking twice about buying any expensive items, such as furniture, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks curtailed travel.

"For me, I have been holding back on major items," said Sahakian as she took a short lunch break during a day of shopping Saturday at the Glendale Galleria, where the parking lot was packed and lines formed at the cash registers inside Macy's.

"Not anything over $500," she said.

Many economists predict that even if the retail environment is stagnant while American troops are fighting in Iraq, consumer spending will revive as soon as the hostilities cease.

"A lot of the malaise, particularly over the last six months, has been due in large part to the uncertainty over what was going to happen," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist for Deloitte Research.

Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing and author of "Why People Buy Things They Don't Need," said that after the war, Americans will be eager to buy after months of cocooning and denying themselves.

"Since January, consumer spending has been back to basics, focused on keeping the gas tank filled, food in the pantry and medicines on the shelf," Danziger said. "But very soon, with renewed confidence, consumers will indulge with new spending justified by their holding back for so long."

Stacy Dasilva, 21, of Whittier, who works in an accounts payable department, said she had picked up her spending in recent days.

"Tomorrow's not guaranteed," Dasilva said as she shopped Saturday at South Coast Plaza. "I was just joking with my mom that I'm going to shop like there's no tomorrow."

Her friend Yedda Marcelino, 24, of Thousand Oaks, had a different view. "To be quite honest, it's really scary," said Marcelino, a student who works part time. "The economy is so down and you never know when you're going to get laid off.

"You always look for the bargains, but I just bought a pair of flip-flops for $35 that I'm thinking about returning," Marcelino said. "I definitely feel guilty."

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