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Window-shopping at Helzberg Diamonds in Westfield’s North County Shopping Mall, Grace, the manager of nearby John’s Fifth Avenue Luggage, says, “I’d think twice before plunking down $10,000 on a ring in this economy.” She enjoys perusing the wares at Helzberg, a 234-store nationwide chain headquartered in Kansas City, and notes that when she does, she’s typically all alone, save for the sales clerks. However, when I ask the manager at Helzberg’s Escondido outpost about sales, she says, “Things are just fine for us,” but declines to elaborate. In the meantime, according to other mall tenants with whom I speak, jewelry stores, in particular, have been devastated by the recession.

Samer Halabi, manager of Takken’s Shoes at Westfield North County, sounds a cheerful note, saying that his sales (Takken’s focuses on “comfort shoes”) have been on the upswing in recent months. As for his neighbors, things are considerably gloomier; he’s seen the deserted floor, heard the silence at places like Zales and Daniel’s. But at least they’re still open; some of his fellow tenants, including Archie’s, J.Jill, Lane Bryant, Oggi’s, and Waldenbooks, have raised the white flag. So although county mall purveyors of luxury goods are hurting, it seems that store closings are, in a sense, democratic.

It would be overly simplistic, then, to characterize sales downturns among San Diego County mall retailers in a neat fashion; although big-ticket splurge items (including jewelry) are moving sluggishly these days, sellers of more pedestrian goods report declines in sales as well. According to many, this can be attributed not only to the slumping economy but also to the incursion of big-box stores — principally Target and Walmart. Several store managers with whom I speak say that, in contrast to mall shops, Walmart is “always packed” and that dollar stores — typically situated in strip malls — also seem to be doing well.

For additional perspective on the “Walmart effect,” I speak with Darrel Ueno, owner of La Jolla Village Florist, which opened at University Towne Centre in 1977, one of the mall’s original tenants. He says, “The big-box stores most definitely have a negative effect on the traditional retail florist.” However, Westfield, which dominates the local mall scene, owning seven of the county’s largest retail properties, sidesteps the issue. My inquiries are referred to Michele Predko, the regional marketing director who oversees Westfield’s San Diego County malls. She states, “Our job as a landlord is to provide our customers with choice and convenience.… We strive to do that by providing choices that appeal to different customers.” To be fair, however, some small, San Diego–based retailers continue to thrive — or at least keep the doors open — even as big-name chains continue to close stores around the country.

At Westfield UTC, Chuao Chocolatier, based in Carlsbad, is an example of a local retailer that is confident of weathering the fiscal storm by focusing on customer loyalty. I speak with Michael Antonorsi, the affable president — and chief chocolate crafter — of Chuao, which also operates stores at the Del Mar Highlands Town Center and at the Lumberyard in Encinitas. He tells me that sales at the confectioner’s UTC location are down 14 percent from a year ago, due, he speculates, to a decrease in walk-by traffic in the mall. According to Antonorsi, the Del Mar store is down 10 percent — a figure he calls “the new flat.” By contrast, business at the Encinitas Chuao has increased by at least that much during the past 12 months.

Out at Otay Ranch Town Center in Chula Vista, small retailers, such as Chyca’s Boutique, a women’s wear store, are also counting on a loyal cadre of locals to see them through hard times. Nonetheless, Selina, the store’s co-owner, admits that they’ve been forced to close the store on Mondays — the slowest day of the week — to reduce costs. She says that business has declined 25 percent since the store opened in August 2008 but that things “appear to be picking up slightly” as of late. When I ask her about the effect of nearby megastores, she notes that the most significant impact isn’t on specialty shops like hers but on general-merchandise retailers. And, she notes, many stores at her mall are having “incredible” sales, as well as cutting their hours of operation.

The consensus among store owners and managers is that the most precipitous sales slides at San Diego mall stores have occurred at two broadly defined types of retailers: big chains (those with hundreds of stores) that sell generic goods and local merchants that have been unable to build a loyal following and/or convince potential customers that their wares are necessities.

The former category includes places like Sam Goody, a huge chain of pop-music purveyors whose ranks have thinned drastically in the past year. When I ask the manager at the Goody outpost at Horton Plaza to weigh in, he says, “I’d love to talk, but corporate won’t let me.”

It isn’t just the secretive, corporate big boys who won’t comment on bad times, however; a number of small stores I contact are none too eager to discuss their travails. Typical of the latter is Whatever, a seller of low-end ghetto-style women’s clothes at Grossmont Center in La Mesa. According to several store managers at Grossmont, Whatever is always empty and appears to be on the brink of going under. I hear similar observations recounted by mall insiders about a number of retailers in every mall.

An assistant manager we’ll call Joe at a large anchor store in Horton Plaza, another Westfield property, cites San Diego Trading Company, a sports-apparel store, as just the sort of local retailer that suffers when discretionary income shrinks. According to Joe, who “cruises around” Horton Plaza during his breaks, San Diego Trading Company — which operates ten of what it terms “unique concept stores” in the county, including four kiosks in malls — looks like an abandoned outpost. He surmises that “there really isn’t the market for Padres hats and SDSU jerseys these days. People are buying basics, not novelty items.” (My attempts to contact Whatever and San Diego Trading Company, as well as several other troubled retailers, are rebuffed.)

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