“Ferragamo is boarded up, Prada is boarded up, Dolce & Gabbana is boarded up,” said Kathy Gohari, vice president of the Rodeo Drive Committee. “Rodeo Drive is among the most desirable streets in the world, which means we’re one of the biggest targets. What we do not welcome is people with ill intentions, who are here to destruct property.”
After a year marked by unrest and upheaval, retailers around the country are taking sweeping measures — and spending millions — to protect their stores during a high-stakes presidential election that could quickly turn contentious. Saks Fifth Avenue and CVS are boarding up store windows and adding extra security at some locations, while Neiman Marcus is closing all stores at 5 p.m. on Election Day. Others are closing altogether on Tuesday, or providing paid time off for employees to vote or volunteer at the polls.
“The safety of our customers, associates, and communities, as well as the protection of our physical assets, is of utmost importance,” Nicole Schoenberg, a spokeswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue, said in a statement.
The election is the latest wild card for retailers, which have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and a summer of civil unrest. The May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis sparked protests across the country, including some that turned violent. Stores across the country were vandalized, leading some retailers such as Target and Nordstrom to abruptly shutter locations, and others to board up windows and step up security.
Retailers have already sustained an estimated $1 billion in insured losses from property damage and theft this year, according to early estimates from the Insurance Information Institute, making this year’s protests “the costliest civil disorder in U.S. history.”
President Trump on Tuesday morning weighed in on the boarded-up buildings in cities like New York, calling it “very sad” on Fox & Friends. “It’s a shame to watch it,” he said. “It’s a shame. No reason for it.”
He attributed rioting and looting to “wise guys, anarchists and agitators,” and said without evidence that potential violence would be the result of “weak, weak leadership” in “Democrat-run cities” such as Chicago, Portland and Baltimore.
Walmart last week removed all guns and ammunition from thousands of store displays, citing fears of “civil unrest” after some properties were ransacked when rioting broke out in Philadelphia following the police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man whose family said he was in the midst of a mental health crisis. The company later reversed its decision, saying “incidents have remained geographically isolated.”
Commercial security companies and contractors say they’ve been fielding round-the-clock calls from business owners who are worried about protests and riots.
“All of the requests are the same: Board up everything before Election Day,” said a manager at Commercial Glass Door Repair in Washington, D.C., who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the company. “If you go downtown, everything is boarded up, regardless of whether it’s a luxury store or not. It’s never been like this before.”
In Chicago, a number of stores along its famed Magnificent Mile have boarded up their windows in recent days. The city has snowplows, salt trucks and other “pre-staged” vehicles ready to deploy as barriers if it needs to shut down certain areas, according to Adam Skaf, a spokesman for the Magnificent Mile Association. The group, he said, has been closely coordinating with the police to come up with “long-term security strategies” in the run-up to the election.
Retailers say recent vandalism and looting has resulted in tens of millions of dollars in losses and rebuilding expenses. Sneaker chain Foot Locker, for example, said it had incurred $18 million in costs from “recent social unrest” during the summer.
Demand for bullet- and attack-resistant windows has been on the rise since the summer, particularly among small businesses and marijuana dispensaries around the country, according to Mike Clark, vice president of Creative Industries in Indianapolis.
“It’s been a mixture of responding to the riots, as well as preparing in anticipation of the election results,” he said. “Businesses are calling and saying, ‘Our windows have been smashed out. We want to upgrade to bullet-resistant material.’”
In addition to physically protecting their stores, hundreds of national chains have pledged to give employees paid time off to vote this year. Madewell and J. Crew will close all stores, corporate offices and distribution centers on Tuesday as part of its commitment to Time to Vote, a nonpartisan coalition founded in 2018. More than 700 companies, including Macy’s, Ralph Lauren, REI and Dick’s Sporting Goods, have signed on this year.
“The need has never been greater for businesses to provide their employees dedicated time off to vote,” Dan Schulman, president and chief executive of PayPal, one of the three Time to Vote founders, said in a news release. “No American should have to choose between earning a paycheck and voting.”
The National Retail Federation last week hosted an online seminar for 60 retail brands on conflict prevention and de-escalation that was originally meant to help workers handle belligerent customers who didn’t want to wear masks. But organizers decided to broaden their sights to include election-related confrontations.
“As we got closer to the election, we all saw the same signs of unrest and uneasiness and anxiety,” said Stephanie Martz, NRF’s chief administrative officer and general counsel. “You kind of have to be on the balls of your feet, in the ready position, like you are in sports, to respond to whatever it is coming.”
The trade group, she said, is encouraging retailers to keep in close contact with local police departments. Although many retailers have opted to board up windows and store fronts, she said it was an individualized financial calculation that companies have to make.
“You don’t necessarily want to send the message that you’re closed for business,” she said. “But on the other hand, you’ve got to keep your employees safe, you’ve got to keep your customers safe.”
The looming uncertainty of the election — and how and when it will be decided — could have long-term effects on consumer spending, which has started to rebound in recent months. But those gains could be wiped out if the outcome of the election drags on for days or weeks. The retail industry has weathered its share of difficulties this year, beginning with the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the abrupt shutdown of thousands of stores around the country. More than a dozen major retailers have since filed for bankruptcy, and analysts expect as many as 25,000 stores to permanently close this year.
“A lot will depend on the tone of the count — if this is a landslide either way, it’s different than if we enter a state of perennial unrest,” said Greg Portell, lead partner of global consumer practice at the consulting firm Kearney.
“Consumers like certainty one way or another,” Portell said. “If they don’t feel safe, you’ll see them retrench and hibernate at home, which is not great for the economy.”