Major jewelers, retailers close in advance of Hurricane Rita

Gulf Coast jewelers and other retailers, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, prepared for a new onslaught from Hurricane Rita, expected to hit land as early as this evening. Stores along the southeast Texas coast and in southwestern Louisiana started closing Thursday as Hurricane Rita approached.

Ben Bridge Jewelers didn’t wait for an evacuation order, but polled the mangers at its five Houston stores, all in malls with two near low-flooding areas, and then closed the stores on Wednesday. “Our people are our number one priority,” Jon Bridge, co-chief executive officer, told JCK. “We did it so they could prepare and take care of their families.” He said store managers in Dallas and Austin have already taken in some of their colleagues and families from Houston. Bridge wasn’t sure when the Houston stores will reopen—“It depends on what happens”—but the company has “everyone’s cell phone and telephone numbers to keep track of them and locate them afterwards.”

Sterling Inc. the second largest U.S. jewelry retailer, has four freestanding Jared and 20 Kay mall stores in the Houston region. “Our concern is our people. We want to make sure they’re safe and that we can stay in touch with them,” David Bouffard, vice president of marketing, told JCK. “We’re telling to follow the orders of their local governments, and we’re in close contact with the [mall] developers.” Sterling has a communication system for such contingencies, with contact points between the home office and field locations, “so we can reach each other when they’re safe.”

A spokesperson for Helzberg Diamonds, which has 14 mall stores in the Houston and Galveston areas told JCK that all of them were closed by Thursday night, and all its employees safely evacuated. The question of when and which to reopen would be made Monday after the storm.

Zale Corp., the largest U.S. jeweler retailer, also have a number of stores (Zales, Gordon, Bailey, Banks & Biddle) in the path of Hurricane Rite, but couldn’t be reached for comment at press time.

Stuller, Inc. in Lafayette, La., which has been a leader in post-Katrina recovery effects, closed Thursday so its associates could prepare their homes and families. Stuller expected to resume regular operating hours on Monday.

Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, which provided impressive support, aid, and recovery for employees and victims after Hurricane Katrina, began preparing for Rita when its first formed as a tropical depression. It had 100 stores and distribution centers in a 120-mile radius of Rita’s expected landfall location, reported Reuters. By close of business Thursday, it had closed 64 in the storm’s path, said news reports. Wal-Mart closed 126 locations when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, noted Reuters. Nine were badly damaged; the rest have reopened.

“There’s a huge potential for short- and long-term economic damage to south Texas and the entire country,” said Dr. Bernard Weinstein, a director at the University of North Texas, reported Women’s Wear Daily. Houston’s retail industry alone is worth about $70 billion, said WWD.

Those wanting to help jewelry industry colleagues recover from the impact of Hurricane can go to Katrina or Rita can go to the Jewelers of America Recovery Network (http://forum.jewelers.org/forums) and/or send a check to the Stuller Inc. Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund C/o Community Foundation of Acadiana, P. O. Box 3892, Lafayette, LA 70502-3892