On Election Day, Rodeo Drive will be in lockdown, with cars and pedestrians blocked from its luxury boutiques. Along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, barriers will control crowds. New York’s Fifth Avenue is staying open, but will quickly shutter if unrest erupts.
“There’s coordination across city departments,” said Rich Gamble, chairman of the Magnificent Mile Association. Blockades will be arranged with “everything from snow plows to salt trucks — those will be on the ready.”
After being caught off guard during nationwide social unrest this summer and suffering millions in damages, retailers have spent months prepping for another possible bout of vandalism on Election Day. In one significant example, Walmart Inc., the nation’s largest retailer, this week pulled guns off its sales floor.
The industry is trying to avoid a repeat of scenes that played out across the country when protests following the police killing of George Floyd were accompanied by violence and property damage. In Los Angeles, there were burglaries at Gucci and Alexander McQueen. Looting also took place in Chicago and Manhattan, including at Macy’s Inc.’s massive midtown flagship.
While retailers have had the luxury of planning ahead for the election, there are still so many unknowns. There might not be a declared winner that night, which could lead to days of protests and skirmishes between opposing sides. Or maybe a victory by Joe Biden sparks celebrations that are countered by fans of President Donald Trump. A win by Trump, who trails in the polls and has low approval ratings in urban areas, would likely cause protests to be more intense, according to Matt Hinton, a partner at security consultant Control Risks.
“If Trump wins, our risk analysts, who look at this every single day, are expecting widespread mass anti-government demonstrations in every major city,” Hinton said. Sporadic protests could then break out through Inauguration Day in January, he added.
But the decision to shut down has been made more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic that’s battered the retail industry. U.S. retail sales have declined by almost $122 billion since Covid-19 caused store shutdowns in March, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Then in the summer just as some reopened, the demonstrations against police brutality forced retailers in many parts of the country to close again. And now the threat of more closures comes at the beginning of the crucial Christmas-shopping season.
While many chains say they have a plan for the election, luxury brands have been the most aggressive, according to Tom Buiocchi, chief executive officer of ServiceChannel, a maker of store-operations software. The threat has forced competitors into unlikely partnerships, as they try to make group decisions on shuttering stores and security to reduce risk.
Ralph Lauren Corp. CEO Patrice Louvet said his team has done simulations to map out potential scenarios based on the election’s outcome. Meanwhile, Tapestry Inc., owner of the Coach brand, is already in talks with police, since it has stores in many high-end shopping districts, including New York and Chicago, according to interim CEO Todd Kahn.
The cost to protect one store might reach $30,000, according to ServiceChannel. The list of preparations can include ordering plywood and barricades weeks in advance and upgrading security cameras. At some locations, guards might be posted around the clock. High-value items, like jewelry, are being moved to storage.
RiotGlass has seen a spike in demand for its reinforced glass this year, and orders for its break-resistant product surged before the election, according to CEO Brad Campbell.
“We’re way past the ability to bring in any new business,” Campbell said. “We’re just trying to keep up with all the ones that we promised before the election.”
Because converting every store into a fortress would be very expensive, chains are being selective, with a focus on urban flagships that are often vital. New York is home to the largest Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany & Co. shops in the world, with each retailer relying on a steady flow of visitors to drive sales, especially in the holiday months. Inactivity at just a few shops can make a significant impact on a company’s results.
That’s what played out in Hong Kong last year when weeks of anti-government protests forced many stores to shut down, including Burberry and Ralph Lauren, as major chains took large financial hits. Louis Vuitton ended up permanently closing one location.
Other cities are preparing and coordinating with major chains, too. Houston’s police force will put more cops on the street for Election Day and its aftermath. Atlanta officials say they’re gearing up for large protests. In Portland, home to months of unrest, police told businesses to remove dumpsters and signs to eliminate things that can be used as projectiles or fuel for fires.
Despite months to prepare, retailers and their suppliers are rushing to finish off security measures in the final days before the election.
“It’s been pretty daunting,” said Campbell of the push to get his company’s products installed in all the stores that ordered them. “We’re working around the clock.”