Southern California Retailers Grapple With Damage from Recent Fires

Retailers in Ventura, Santa Barbara and parts of Los Angeles counties were spared significant property damage from major fires ravaging the areas. However, some had to temporarily close stores and cut business hours due to poor air quality and shoppers not being able to travel.

Fred Levine, cofounder of the M.Fredric chain of boutiques, closed his Ventura store for seven days but was able to reopen it on Dec. 12.

There was no physical damage to the shop, but Levine said that smoke-filled air made it hard to breathe in Ventura. During the worst time of the fire, commercial districts were deserted and it was dangerous for the staff’s health to run the boutique.

Levine said that the danger from poor air quality remained a major concern. “We’re going to play it day by day in Ventura,” he said.

The M.Fredric shop in Oxnard, Calif., also was closed for less than a week because of bad air quality while the Woodland Hills location in Los Angeles County was closed for less than a day.

The Ventura M.Fredric will join other city merchants in donating proceeds from sales during December to nonprofits helping Ventura residents displaced by the fire.

While the recent fires made international headlines, Levine put the damage in context. It wasn’t as bad as the Northridge earthquake of 1994. He forecasted it would not have much of an effect on the year’s business.

“Being in business for 37 years, you develop a thick skin and learn how to recover,” Levine said.

Alan Au, vice president of Jimmy Au’s for Men 5'8 & Under store in Sherman Oaks, Calif., also put the impact from the fires in context. “9/11 was worse,” he said of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C.

“People were afraid to go to the mall. People were not going to public places,” he remembered.

During the recent fires, many of Au’s customers told him they were going to postpone shopping at his store because traveling to some parts of the county was difficult. Business was very quiet for a few days during the past week, Au said.

One of the retailer’s biggest worries was smoke damaging inventory. “We were running our air conditioning to get the smoke smell out of the store. It smelled like a campfire. Little by little, it’s going away,” he said.

Au also was worried about the fires hurting crucial holiday-season business. “During the holiday, one week of bad business could equal two weeks of bad business,” he said.