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Pandemic an unwelcome and ill-timed disrupter for malls and merchants

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Mall merchants and their landlords don't need any more financial or competitive pressures.

They have plenty of both in stock, with more on back order.

They're having enough trouble defending their turf against the likes of Amazon.com and other nimble online sales rivals. Now, they're confronted with an entirely new and unexpected disruptive force, one that President Donald Trump last week described in broad terms as an "invisible enemy."

In addition to its tragic and far-ranging human toll, the coronavirus pandemic is poised to inflict some serious harm on the brick-and-mortar retail business, an industry based on driving as much foot traffic as possible into relatively small, confined spaces.

The global outbreak roared ashore in the U.S. in tidal-wave fashion last week, when officials from top to bottom began shutting down the mass-gathering economy in a breakneck effort to contain and vanquish the deadly virus.

Technology giant Apple Inc. was among the first big companies to take action. The iPhone maker, with stores in Charleston and Greenville, announced last weekend that it was closing all U.S. retail locations until further notice. 

By mid-week, dozens of other mall-based and Main Street merchants followed suit, though few among them can afford to sacrifice even a day of revenue.

Names like Belk, J.C. Penney, Macy's, Nike, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew have all taken a coronavirus timeout.

Others, including Walmart, Target and Publix, have trimmed their store hours.

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Landlords also have taken precautions. Simon Property Group shut down all of its shopping centers, including two in the Upstate, to minimize the public health risks. Citadel Mall in Charleston closed its doors, too.

The abrupt retrenchment has retail center owners worried that this holding pattern will drag on indefinitely. So last week they joined a long list of U.S. industries that have taken a direct hit from the pandemic and requested part of a proposed government bailout plan that could inject more than $1 trillion into the shaken economy.

"The necessary public health and safety actions being taken have required retailers, restaurants, gyms and other service providers to close," International Council of Shopping Centers CEO Tom McGee wrote the Trump administration Thursday. “These closures are placing an insurmountable strain on our members, and we believe federal government action is urgently needed.” 

Among other forms of support, McGee's trade association is seeking guarantees or payments for business-interruption insurance for tenants and property owners, saying up to $1 trillion in debt could be at risk.

“This will jeopardize the entire industry and cause long-term damage to financial markets...,” he wrote.

U.S. consumers were starting to worry about the infectious virus weeks before the health crisis escalated at home, according to a survey of 1,934 adults by New York-based Coresight Research in late February. 

"Over a quarter of respondents say they already avoid public places or have changed travel plans — and that jumps to well over half if the outbreak worsens," Coresight said in a summary posted on its website. "Hardest hit are likely to be malls, shopping centers and other crowded locations."

Shareholders of publicly traded U.S. mall operators already have seen their holdings tank, as longtime investors in CBL & Associates Properties Inc. can attest. The Tennessee-based company, which owns five South Carolina shopping centers, including Northwoods Mall in North Charleston and Coastal Grand in Myrtle Beach, was a $50 stock at its peak in 2006, before the last recession and before e-commerce merchants began to dismantle the old way of doing business.

In the past year, the shares haven't climbed above $2. Last week, CBL was trading around 35 cents.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott

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