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Fla. Retail Endures Frances

Having been pounded by hurricane Frances, Florida retailers, many closed since Thursday afternoon, began opening where possible on Monday.

PLANTATION, Fla. — Retail stores in Florida, after losing more than three shopping days due to hurricane Frances during the traditionally important Labor Day sales weekend, began to slowly reopen on Monday even as merchants and insurers began to assess total losses.

While the dollar count for physical damage and missed sales revenue won’t be known for days, the total has been estimated to be as much as $20 billion, according to state officials. Coupled with hurricane Charley, which pounded the region three weeks ago, depressing August retail sales, the total figure could be as high as $40 billion.

Nationwide spending in 2003 for the back-to-school season, which includes Labor Day weekend, was $14.8 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.

Some areas had just finished sorting through the destruction caused by hurricane Charley when Frances began. Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte seemed to take the brunt of Charley’s wrath.

Frances began moving toward the east coast of Florida on Thursday. By Friday, evacuation orders for 2.5 million people were issued — the largest in the state’s history. As it spread across the state, the hurricane downed power lines, flooded streets and brought down trees. There were reports of several deaths in the state due to Frances.

While Frances’ fierce winds and hurricane conditions affected most of the state, the storm hit the central part of the eastern coast, near Melbourne hardest.

With hurricane warnings issued for the entire east coast of Florida, 15 of Simon Property Group’s 27 Florida malls had closed by Friday afternoon, said Les Morris, corporate spokesman.

Hurricane warnings were lifted in Miami-Dade county by 5 a.m. Sunday morning and several of the malls began to open, including Simon’s Dadeland Mall in Miami, Morris said. The company’s Broward County malls and some of the Palm Beach County malls, including Town Center in Boca Raton, reopened Monday.

Retailers at Bal Harbour Shoppes, directly across the street from the Atlantic Ocean north of Miami Beach, reopened on a voluntary basis on Sunday at noon. Monday, the mall, including anchors Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, was open for holiday hours of noon to 6.
Aventura Mall, in north Miami Beach, reopened Sunday at noon, with around 80 percent of stores prepared to do business. About 20 percent were still without power Monday and some employees were unable to report to work, said a spokeswoman for the Mall, which is anchored by J.C. Penney, Sears, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Burdines.

Shopping centers that reopened on Sunday reported strong traffic due to pent-up demand, although most people seemed to be more interested in eating than buying clothing and other products.

“Sunday was phenomenal,” the Aventura spokeswoman said. “People were stir crazy after being inside for so long. The food court was packed, but sit-down restaurants were closed, due to power outages and food purveyors not being able to deliver over the weekend.”

Monday was slower and more sporadic than normal, although some people were shopping and taking advantage of Labor Day sales, the Aventura spokeswoman said. Other than debris and shrubbery blown around entrances, the mall was not damaged.

Taubman Centers closed on Thursday afternoon included The Falls and Dolphin Mall in Miami and the Mall at Wellington Green in Wellington, Fla. near Palm Beach. By noon on Sunday, The Falls and Dolphin Mall had reopened. The Mall at Wellington remained closed Monday due to power outage and International Plaza in Tampa was closed Sunday and Monday because of the tail end of the storm, said a spokeswoman for Taubman, adding that damage to the malls has been has been minimal.

Bloomingdale’s in Boca Raton opened Monday at the usual time and an Orlando unit was expected to open at 11 a.m.

“Those stores survived the hurricane with no damage,” said a Bloomingdale’s spokeswoman. “There was some damage to the Gardens in Palm Beach, which is being assessed to determine when it can reopen.

“Obviously the hurricane impacted the Florida business,” the Bloomingdale’s spokeswoman said.

The Gardens had been closed since Friday. The local fire department said there was still no electricity Monday and the center would probably open some time this week.

Mizner Park, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex in Boca Raton, remained closed Monday. “They had a lot of trees down, a lot of damage,” said Neil Evangelista, public information officer for the city of Boca Raton. He did not know when the center would reopen.
Palm Beach island was virtually inaccessible due to flooding Monday, robbing luxury stores on Worth Avenue of sales. A recorded message informed customers that Worth Avenue would reopen Tuesday, Sept. 7, “weather permitting.” Only residents and business owners were allowed to enter Palm Beach Monday and a curfew from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. was issued.

City Place, an open-air center anchored by Burdines-Macy’s, in West Palm Beach, was closed with no information on reopening.

“We’ve got tourists in town who want a place that’s air-conditioned and we’ve got it for them,” said Ron Clair, manager of J.C. Penney at the Florida Mall in Orlando on Monday. The store did not lose power in the storm, and did not suffer damage in the hurricane.

Traffic started slow Monday morning, but had picked up by mid-afternoon.

“Any time you’re closed you’ll lose business. But the reality is, business in Florida has been outstanding all year,” with increased tourist traffic coming back to Orlando, said Clair.

— Ellen Foreman and Georgia Lee, Atlanta