For more than two weeks now, we've been horrified by the grisly images: police cruisers in a Home Depot parking garage; crime tape at a Michaels crafts store; flowers heaped in makeshift shrines at a Mobil service station.
The mixture of murder and commerce poses tricky questions for shoppers, who have been worrying out loud about chores that as recently as a month ago were too mundane to mention -- such as grocery shopping at the Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton, where the sniper killed his first victim.
For the retailers, the questions may be trickier yet.
Companies must get customers through the door to thrive, and associating themselves too closely to tragedy can only work against that, the thinking goes.
Maybe this is why, days after the attack, the Home Depot Web site made no reference to the sniper shot that took the life of Linda Franklin at the Seven Corners store, no hint of the dreadful killing that terrified employees and customers alike. Neither did the Web site of arts-and-crafts chain Michaels Stores mention that a woman had been seriously injured at a Michaels near Fredericksburg by a sniper's bullet two weeks before.
"They are under no obligation to further this unflattering association with a serial killer," said Thomas J. Madden, chairman of Transmedia Group, a public relations firm in Boca Raton, Fla. "They don't want this to go down as the Home Depot sniper."
But they also can't turn their back on the victims.
"It's extremely sensitive trying to find that fine line between looking compassionate and sensitive and at the same time trying not to inadvertently tie yourself closer to the situation than you need to be," said Jeffrey R. Caponigro, a public relations specialist and author of "The Crisis Counselor: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing a Business Crisis."
The fine line, he said, is between caring about the people in the affected area without suggesting to customers across the country that they should fear shopping in the store.
Getting that message across may be more important to a Home Depot or a Michaels than to the neighborhood gas station, which people sometimes patronize without even remembering the brand name.
Perhaps all this is why the retailers won't comment on whether their local sales have been affected. A walk through the stores suggests that both companies have lost business, at least in the short term. But neither will say so. Home Depot won't broach the subject, citing company policy. Shoppers Food Warehouse said executives were not available to comment about the matter. Michaels concedes business is slow in area stores, but it stops short of blaming the sniper.
"We realize foot traffic in our stores is down, but the retail sector in general is down," said Tom Clary, a company spokesman. "I don't know what the reason is."
That kind of discretion elicits a thumbs-up from Larry L. Smith, president of public relations firm Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville.
"It's smart [for them] to universalize their answers to sensitive questions as much as possible," Smith said. "If you say traffic is down, or down significantly, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
In other words, be honest. But don't tell everything you know.
That doesn't mean these companies should take a hands-off approach, experts said.
Consumers should believe the retailers are as grief-stricken as everyone else.
A letter on the company Web site could go a long way in that direction, many crisis-management specialists said, just like the ones American and United airlines posted after last year's Sept. 11 attacks.
Even if a company does not want to talk specifics about security -- as Home Depot, Michaels and others have declined to do -- it should at least reassure the public that beefed-up measures are in place, specialists said.
And condolence calls to the victims' families from the companies' top brass are a must.
Sometimes, taking a more active approach can cement a company's ties to a community.
For instance, when three workers were shot dead at a Starbucks store in Georgetown five years ago, chief executive Howard D. Schultz rushed to Washington, spoke with the families and attended the funerals.
Seven months after the shooting, the store reopened. A small plaque in memory of the victims stands near the store entrance. Net profits from that Starbucks (about $350,000 in the past four years) have gone to anti-violence charity groups in the area.
The store, a company spokeswoman said, is now doing "phenomenally well."
It's too early to tell if Home Depot and Michaels will take a similar tack -- or if they need to. After all, this isn't like Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol crisis in the 1980s, where the problem affected the company's product.
John Simley, a Home Depot spokesman, suggests his company is doing plenty behind the scenes.
But again, he's not at liberty to discuss the details.
Researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
Margaret Pressler is on leave. Her Selling Us column will return early next year.